There's a marvelous scene early in MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS in which Laura Henderson, just widowed, is seen "rowing her boat gently down the stream" away from the camera, and once she's at a safe distance -- barely a speck amidst the background of green -- does she cry out in pain and weeps. It's the only time we will see her give in to pain and suffering in this way: it's as if widowhood has brought forth an inner steel that may have been there, waiting for the right moment. In her life, death was that right moment.
She picks up a pet project which is to get into vaudeville -- it's the hottest thing across the pond, why not bring it to London? -- and so Revudeville is born. But there's a problem: even though the show is a success, it's not long when every other theater in London has the same act, so hers, the first, loses money left and right. Her theater is in big trouble of getting closed. The iconoclast that she is, she suggests the unthinkable -- get naked girls. You can almost see the laughter trying to peal itself out as the camera holds itself tight on her face once she makes her outrageous suggestion: she's touched a testy subject, her partner, Vivian Van Damm, is stunned, but this is what she wants and she's going to get it.
MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS from this moment on embraces its newfound sense of nudity in telling the story of the Windmill Theatre and its revue of showgirls who, while presenting live acts, also had naked females posing in the background -- live works of art, nothing objectionable with that, and a trick that due to a loophole in the laws back then they were able to get away with.
The movie is mainly lightweight throughout its first half as the Windmill Theatre is gaining its "saucy" momentum. A hoot to watch is the verbal exchange between Mrs. Henderson and Lord Chamberlain, who is appalled at the idea that -- Heaven forbid! -- the public will see the girls' pudendum. (It's one of the many verbal exchanges in this delightful film.) She assures him she'll have the lighting technicians use soft light... and if that doesn't solve the issue, a barber will be on call to take a closer look into the matter. No need for either -- the show is a hit, and everyone is happy with the results.
But war arrives not long after and what has become a symbol of underground entertainment now becomes a place where soldiers take refuge. The movie takes an uneven tone from here on because it has to accommodate more dramatic events, set aside the more comedic ones, and keep up with the musical it also is. It's not an easy thing to do, but I loved the way that Frears blended the three, in the great scene when bombers begin attacking London as the Windmill is in full performance. Notice the act of defiance Maureen (Kelly Reilly), the only one of the dancers who gets a storyline in the movie, makes as she "gives them the finger" and poses like it were opening night. It's a moment of dramatic strength, emotional triumph, with a hint of a wink here and there -- the essence of what it must have been like to live in that period of time.
It's always a good experience for me to see a Stephen Frears film because he seems to have a good notion of what makes actors work as they work together. Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins do look like they've been married for years and certainly act so, they argue grandly, and tell people they should never interrupt a good argument. Kelly Reilly has more to do here than in PRIDE & PREJUDICE where she played Caroline Bingley, and her role is given the necessary depth without making it maudlin. When she leaves, the film pretty much ends: there is something about her muted storyline I wanted to see more of. Christopher Guest. Will Young, and Thelma Barlow also fill up the cast with funny performances.