Reviewed by GREG KING.
In recent years, Judi Dench, the Oscar-winning grand dame of British screen and stage, has carved a niche for herself playing vivacious old broads, sparkling with energy and a mischievous wit. And in Mrs Henderson Presents the irrepressible Dench finds one of her meatiest characters for quite some time, and throws herself into the role with relish.
Dench plays the recently widowed Laura Henderson, who has little time for the quaint and respectable pursuits of widowhood – embroidery, serving on charitable committees, taking an illicit younger lover. Instead, on a whim, she uses some of the considerable fortune left by her late husband to buy the run down Windmill Theatre in London’s Soho district. She refurbishes the theatre and successfully runs it as a vaudeville venue. She also hires unemployed theatre manager Vivian Van Damm (a blustering Bob Hoskins, in fine form) to run the place. The couple instantly develops a prickly relationship that surprisingly endures as they develop a grudging respect for each other.
But when other theatres copy the Windmill’s successful formula, Mrs Henderson proposes something a bit more daring and risque to attract the crowds. With the reluctant approval of the Lord Chamberlain, who, until the 1960’s made all the decisions about what was acceptable on the London stage, the Windmill launches its nude revues, modelled on the Moulin Rouge in Paris. When the threat of war on the continent reaches London with nightly bombing raids, the Windmill’s policy of never closing becomes something of a morale booster to the population and also to the young servicemen about to be sent off to their fate.
Based on the true story of the Windmill Theatre and its nude revues, Mrs Henderson Presents initially seems like a light and frothy stroll through the world of London theatre in the 1930’s and its backstage politics. But there is also a darker undertone to the material. This is not altogether surprising, given director Stephen Frears’ track record of making occasionally controversial films offering serious social commentary as well as exploring the darker side of human nature (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dirty Pretty Things, etc). Towards the end, the film deftly segues from light musical comedy to pathos, and eloquently makes its points without preaching.
At the centre of this hugely entertaining and enjoyable film though is the odd couple pairing of Dench and Hoskins, whose amiable, good-natured bickering and grudging mutual respect harks back to vintage Hepburn and Tracy. The pair are ably supported by some splendid performances from a solid ensemble cast, which includes UK’s Pop Idol winner Will Young as a gay theatre director; Kelly Reilly (also recently seen in Russian Dolls) as a vulnerable aspiring actress; and Christopher Guest, who brings a steely dignity to his role as the pompous and stuffy Lord Chamberlain.
On general release from December 26.