Mrs. Henderson Presents (2009)

Rated R. Our ratings: V-1 ; L-2; S -1/N-5 . Running time: 1 hour 43 min.

Remember those films in which the then very young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, needing to raise money for their family, would declare, “Let’s put on a show”? Well, this Stephen Frears’ film (scripted by Martin Sherman) shows that old folks can do the same, even if they do not need the money. In this fact-based film set in England a few years before World War II, Judi Dench is at the height of her thespian glory as Laura Henderson, who, as the film opens, is just putting her late husband into the ground. She hasn’t been at the reception even five minutes before telling her best friend Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow), “I’m bored with widowhood.” Told that crocheting is an appropriate way for widows to spend their time, she tries it, but soon throws it aside, and while moving about London, passes by an old closed-up theater.

Mrs. Henderson Presents

She enters it and is taken with the idea that she can become a theater impresario. She buys the building, renaming it The Windmill because it sits facing Great Windmill Street. She knows that she needs someone knowledgeable to run it, so she interviews Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), who has not only the appropriate credentials, but apparently even more to her liking, the backbone to stand up to her and speak his mind. Indeed, he demands that he receive full artistic control. She agrees, but of course, “control” does not mean that she won’t be sticking in her ideas and opinions—which later turns out to be a good thing. The “non-stop all day” musical reviews that Van Damm mounts are highly successful, with audiences filling the theater day after day—for a time. However, others copy the format, and attendance at The Windmill plummets. Van Damm tells her that even she can ill afford to continually lose money. Necessity being the Mother of Invention, Mrs. Henderson comes up with her Big Idea.

We’ll stage a nude musical review, she says. The astonished Van Damm hesitantly agrees—he even toys with a bit of theological rationalizing about the God-given beauty of the human body—but he does not see how they can get by the censors. He does not realize what his employer is capable of. A friend of Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest), the Lord Chamberlain in charge of censorship, Mrs. Henderson invites him to tea and plies him with delicacies. At first dismissing her idea of a nude theater as out of the question, he weakens a bit, and then while discussing nudity in great art, Mrs. Henderson pounces on the idea of a nude tableaux. “What if the girls did not move?” Would that not be considered as much of a work of art as a painting? Eager to please his influential hostess, he agrees, but with the warning that if ever one of them moves, the show will be shut down. And thus was born what was to London what the Zigfield Follies were to New York, an institution of almost mythic proportions. The reviews, comedy and magic acts in between are highlighted at the end of a dance sequence by the lights going off behind scrims, revealing a group of naked beauties poised in various artistic scenes, including of course, “Venus Rising from the Sea.” True to Mrs. Henderson’s word, none of the women move a muscle or bat an eye for the 20 or 30 second-long tableaux, but the cheering audience, largely males, doesn’t mind a bit.

World War II erupts, and during the London Blitz, the other theaters close down out of concerns for safety. But not The Windmill. Much of it is below the level of the street, and thus somewhat safe—many of the chorus girls move in and lodge in its basement—and the reviews are great morale boosters for the thousands of troops who pass through the city. The authorities do order it shut down, but when Mrs. Henderson arrives to find a large crowd of young soldiers clamoring for admission, she gives the equivalent of King Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day’s speech.

The relationship between owner and manager, often tense and adversarial, is delightful shown, and a sadder tender side is depicted in the story of one of the chorus girls, Maureen (Kelly Reilly) who, despite herself, becomes romantically involved with a soldier who has come to adore her. Thus there is something for young and older viewers in the film, providing they can stand to watch some brief nudity. You probably will not be using this film with a church group, but it does offer many delightful viewing moments, and a somewhat different insight into what put the starch in that English “stiff upper lip” that helped them so ably weather the wartime assault on their island.Mrs. Henderson Presents Rated R. Our ratings: V-1 ; L-2; S -1/N-5 . Running time: 1 hour 43 min.

Remember those films in which the then very young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, needing to raise money for their family, would declare, “Let’s put on a show”? Well, this Stephen Frears’ film (scripted by Martin Sherman) shows that old folks can do the same, even if they do not need the money. In this fact-based film set in England a few years before World War II, Judi Dench is at the height of her thespian glory as Laura Henderson, who, as the film opens, is just putting her late husband into the ground. She hasn’t been at the reception even five minutes before telling her best friend Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow), “I’m bored with widowhood.” Told that crocheting is an appropriate way for widows to spend their time, she tries it, but soon throws it aside, and while moving about London, passes by an old closed-up theater.

She enters it and is taken with the idea that she can become a theater impresario. She buys the building, renaming it The Windmill because it sits facing Great Windmill Street. She knows that she needs someone knowledgeable to run it, so she interviews Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), who has not only the appropriate credentials, but apparently even more to her liking, the backbone to stand up to her and speak his mind. Indeed, he demands that he receive full artistic control. She agrees, but of course, “control” does not mean that she won’t be sticking in her ideas and opinions—which later turns out to be a good thing. The “non-stop all day” musical reviews that Van Damm mounts are highly successful, with audiences filling the theater day after day—for a time. However, others copy the format, and attendance at The Windmill plummets. Van Damm tells her that even she can ill afford to continually lose money. Necessity being the Mother of Invention, Mrs. Henderson comes up with her Big Idea.

We’ll stage a nude musical review, she says. The astonished Van Damm hesitantly agrees—he even toys with a bit of theological rationalizing about the God-given beauty of the human body—but he does not see how they can get by the censors. He does not realize what his employer is capable of. A friend of Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest), the Lord Chamberlain in charge of censorship, Mrs. Henderson invites him to tea and plies him with delicacies. At first dismissing her idea of a nude theater as out of the question, he weakens a bit, and then while discussing nudity in great art, Mrs. Henderson pounces on the idea of a nude tableaux. “What if the girls did not move?” Would that not be considered as much of a work of art as a painting? Eager to please his influential hostess, he agrees, but with the warning that if ever one of them moves, the show will be shut down. And thus was born what was to London what the Zigfield Follies were to New York, an institution of almost mythic proportions. The reviews, comedy and magic acts in between are highlighted at the end of a dance sequence by the lights going off behind scrims, revealing a group of naked beauties poised in various artistic scenes, including of course, “Venus Rising from the Sea.” True to Mrs. Henderson’s word, none of the women move a muscle or bat an eye for the 20 or 30 second-long tableaux, but the cheering audience, largely males, doesn’t mind a bit.

World War II erupts, and during the London Blitz, the other theaters close down out of concerns for safety. But not The Windmill. Much of it is below the level of the street, and thus somewhat safe—many of the chorus girls move in and lodge in its basement—and the reviews are great morale boosters for the thousands of troops who pass through the city. The authorities do order it shut down, but when Mrs. Henderson arrives to find a large crowd of young soldiers clamoring for admission, she gives the equivalent of King Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day’s speech.

The relationship between owner and manager, often tense and adversarial, is delightful shown, and a sadder tender side is depicted in the story of one of the chorus girls, Maureen (Kelly Reilly) who, despite herself, becomes romantically involved with a soldier who has come to adore her. Thus there is something for young and older viewers in the film, providing they can stand to watch some brief nudity. You probably will not be using this film with a church group, but it does offer many delightful viewing moments, and a somewhat different insight into what put the starch in that English “stiff upper lip” that helped them so ably weather the wartime assault on their island.