Dir: Stephen Frears. UK.2005. 103mins.
A jaunty combination ofsocial history, screwball comedy and theatrical kitsch, Mrs HendersonPresents offers a sparkling, emotion-charged stroll down memory lane. Adeliciously witty script by Martin Sherman is seized upon with relish by JudiDench who gives a spellbinding, tour de force as the merry widow behindLondon's Windmill Theatre: filled with mischief and mystery, it is aperformance that should put her in the front line of contenders for Oscar andBAFTA consideration.
Bob Hoskins proves a worthysparring partner as the theatre's manager in a combination that provides thesame level of pleasure as Dench's teaming with Billy Connolly in Mrs Brown.
Positive critical reviewsand strong word of mouth should combine to make this a potent upscaleattraction able to transcend a simple nostalgic appeal to its core olderaudience.
Noted as the theatre thatnever closed, the Windmill was notorious for presenting naked woman whose stilllife poses circumvented Britain's strict code on stage nudity. It was the veryloose inspiration for the 1945 Rita Hayworth musical Tonight And Every Night.
Sherman finds a way to tellthe theatre's history through the love/hate relationship between LauraHenderson (Dench) and her manager Vivian Van Damm (Hoskins).
Widowed in 1937, Hendersonis not the kind of woman to be satisfied with philanthropic deeds and mundanehobbies. Brutally frank and mercilessly witty, she is restless for a biggerchallenge. She decides to purchase the Windmill Theatre, hiring Van Damm toproduce a musical revue.
When the initial flush ofsuccess fades, she has the inspired notion that the girls should appear naked.She even persuades the Lord Chamberlain (Guest) of the show's artistic merits.A smash hit, the theatre eventually comes to embody the spirit ofBlitz-battered London as its doors never close and its mission to entertain isnever abandoned.
Sherman's screenplays for CallasForever and Alive And Kicking seemed overly theatrical and mannered.That isn't the case with Mrs Henderson Presents, which gleefullyembraces the world of backstage intrigue, English eccentrics and larger thanlife personalities. The dialogue is often inspired and hilarious whilst theemotional content is honestly handled as the film takes on an unexpectedcontemporary resonance with its Churchillian stance of defying bombers andensuring that the show must go on.
Evoking memories ofeverything from To Be Or Not To Be (1942) to The Last Metro(1980), director Stephen Frears is also on top form, masterminding a strongsense of period from the pastiche opening titles to the Busby Berkeley-styleroutines.
Costume designer SandyPowell and production designer Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski achieve an affection senseof London in the 1930s on what can only have been a modest budget.
The performances areuniformly impeccable. UK Pop Idol winner Will Young proves a natural inhis screen debut as juvenile lead Bertie and Kelly Reilly makes a strikingimpression as chorus girl Maureen.
The project has been alabour of love for Bob Hoskins, also an executive producer, and he brings awelcome restraint and delicacy to his role.
But the crowning glory isJudi Dench, who gives a masterclass in screen magnetism as she captures everyaspect of Mrs Henderson's character from acerbic observations delivered with anAuntie Mame-like aplomb to the emotional scars hidden beneath the bluster ofher eternally chipper public facade.
Future Films Limited
The Weinstein Company
UK Film Council
Pathe Pictures International
The Weinstein Company