I keep summarizing Mrs. Henderson Presents to friends as "like a Merchant-Ivory film, but with boobies." However, that sounds childish, unprofessional, and distastefully sound-byte-ish.
Mrs. Henderson Presents is a lavish, genteel, deliberately paced, character-driven British film that also happens to feature scenes with topless females. It may be the most inoffensive movie with topless females that I have ever seen. There, that's far less glib. Ultimately and unsurprisingly, Mrs. Henderson Presents is a vehicle for Judi Dench. The surprise is that Bob Hoskins manages to steal enough of the film from her that he's not merely a foil for her, but is interesting on his own.
The two actors are wonderful to watch onscreen together, which provides most of the pleasure in watching this film. If unknown actors had been cast in the lead roles, the cookie-cutter storyline would be more obvious and the movie would never rise above the level of a prestigious-yet-dull movie of the week.
The sparkling performances and feminine pulchritude do not quite hide the fact that the film's plot is terribly predictable. Laura Henderson (Dench) is newly widowed and hates widowhood. She wants to do something more daring than knit and gossip. She buys a dilapidated theater and hires Mr. Van Damm (Hoskins), a clever manager who innovates with round-the-clock revues. However, Mrs. Henderson is the one to suggest the innovation around which the movie revolves: adding bare-breasted young women to the revues to boost attendance.
So it's a putting-on-a-show movie, except with Dench and Hoskins instead of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and the nudity aspect brings it not quite into Moulin Rouge territory (the theater is even called The Windmill), and then it ventures into wartime, at which point I could easily guess what would happen to various supporting characters. I was right.
I did not predict that I would see Hoskins himself completely nude from the front, which was less surprising and even less interesting than you might imagine even with the rarity of male frontal nudity in mainstream film. The male frontal nudity may be the edgiest thing about this film.
Mrs. Henderson and Mr. Van Damm (does that name remind anyone else of James Mason?) have a charmingly rocky relationship that is the centerpiece of the film. Mrs. Henderson Presents is an ideal tour-de-force for Judi Dench, who gets to act amusingly blunt and eccentric, plunging into situations armed only with the tools of British etiquette and succeeding more often than not, and surprising or offending everyone in sight. She even disguises herself as a pantomime bear. Bob Hoskins is properly stern, sly, and occasionally paternal. The young ladies who undress all look lovely. Kelly Reilly stands out as blonde Maureen, and fits in much better here than in the recent Pride and Prejudice, where she looked too strangely modern as Miss Bingley.
Christopher Guest has a lovely cameo role as the Lord Chamberlain who must approve the theater's license once nudity is proposed. The scene between Guest and Dench's character when this matter is discussed, in a tea tent on the lawn, is the comic highlight of the film.
Mrs. Henderson Presents entertained me, and admittedly it was a nice change to watch a film with a strong, independent-minded female main character. And yet, despite being entertained, I was somewhat disappointed. The film contained nothing controversial or edgy, and even the nudity seemed somewhat pedestrian.
I suspect this is because I knew in advance that the movie was directed by Stephen Frears, who also has directed Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons, and Prick Up Your Ears. His films don't usually go the easy and safe and predictable routes. Mrs. Henderson Presents is charming, but nothing about it that it is not easy and safe and predictable. I mentioned Moulin Rouge earlier, but the musical numbers in this movie never reach anywhere near that level of inventiveness and style.
I was especially disappointed by a pivotal scene near the end of the movie in which Mrs. Henderson stands on a box in a crowd and explains the point of the entire movie as well the hidden motivations of her character. It's obvious to the point of condescension, and we know that she has kept her motives from other characters not because it's in her character to hide this information, but because the filmmakers felt that the revelation would fit in best at the film's climax. It does not. The scene doesn't make sense, either, because in an earlier scene where she addresses an eager audience, most of what she says are exaggerations or lies. So is she even telling the truth? It's weakly scripted. It is not quite fair for me to liken this movie to Merchant-Ivory films; those films have better written, more complex plots.
I recommend Mrs. Henderson Presents as a light fluffy afternoon's entertainment if you can forget that Stephen Frears was involved. The movie will play particularly well on DVD, to watch at home one rainy Sunday afternoon. It's one of those "prestige" pictures that you can watch with your dear old Mom ... provided your Mom won't be offended by the unclothed young ladies.