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'Henderson' is all about Dench

The actress gives a star turn as a London theatrical matriarch during World War II, and Bob Hoskins is a perfect foil in Stephen Frears' polished film.

December 09, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Just as there will always be an England, there will always be a certain kind of English film: the highly polished entertainment, well-acted, genteelly amusing and impeccably turned out.

"Mrs. Henderson Presents" is the latest example of the trend and an especially satisfying one.

Directed by the veteran Stephen Frears and featuring fine performances by Bob Hoskins and an irresistible Judi Dench, "Mrs. Henderson Presents" is an artfully sentimentalized valentine to show business in general and musical theater in particular, with the stiff-upper-lip pluckiness of London during the blitz serving as a backdrop.

Not just any kind of musical theater is being celebrated, as it happens, but a curious corner of British theatrical history. That would be the years surrounding World War II when a place in Soho called the Windmill shocked Britain by putting naked young women onstage and getting away with it.

According to Martin Sherman's smartly good-natured script -- inspired, we are told, by true events -- none of this would have happened without the tempestuous partnership of the wealthy and eccentric Mrs. Laura Henderson (Dench) and a scrappy theatrical manager named Vivian Van Damm (Hoskins).

We meet Mrs. Henderson at the funereal moment in 1937 when Mr. Henderson is no more. The type of woman who says "I'd rather drink ink" when asked if she'd like to view some tapestries, Mrs. Henderson is soon bored to tears with widowhood. On a whim, she buys the Windmill and hires Van Damm to manage the place.

Not that hiring him was easy. "You're 20 minutes late and you're rude," are Van Damm's first words to his new boss, and their relationship goes down and up and down from there. The pair's combative rapport is surprisingly endearing, characterized by her commenting after one of his full-bore sallies that "I have no idea what you're talking about, but I do admire passion."

Inspired by her memories of Paris' Moulin Rouge and a personal tragedy she keeps hidden from Van Damm, it is Mrs. Henderson who comes up with the idea of having performers without any clothes on her stage.

Told things like that aren't done in England, she browbeats London's censor, her old friend Lord Cromer (a delightful Christopher Guest), until he agrees to the show with one condition: It must be a tableaux vivant, a living painting in which no one is allowed to move.

Much of "Mrs. Henderson Presents" follows familiar patterns: The girls have to be recruited, persuaded to be comfortably nude on stage, and then shielded from the ravages of London under the blitz. All the while Mrs. H. and Van Damm go at it hammer and tongs, unable to live professionally either with or without each other.

Several things make all this extremely palatable, starting with the presence of 14 vintage stage musical numbers, including Benny Goodman's "Goody Goody" and the classically jaunty "Babies of the Blitz."

Also invaluable is the professionalism of director Frears, who never likes to do the same project twice and is coming off the much darker "Dirty Pretty Things."

"Mrs. Henderson Presents" may be old-fashioned, but Frears' touch keeps it as honest as it can be. Best of all, and the heart of "Mrs. Henderson's" appeal, is the performance of Dench in the title role. Though Hoskins is excellent and an essential foil, it is Dench who takes command of the film. The part of "a most exasperating woman" who says whatever's on her mind fits the actress like a tailored Chanel suit. Dench has an Oscar and all kinds of awards behind her, but this tart-tongued role is one of her very best.


'Mrs. Henderson Presents'

MPAA rating: R for nudity and brief language

Times guidelines: Nudity is quite genteel

Released by the Weinstein Co. Director Stephen Frears. Producer Norma Heyman. Executive producers Bob Hoskins, David Aukin. Screenplay Martin Sherman. Cinematographer Andrew Dunn. Editor Lucia Zucchetti. Costumes Sandy Powell. Music George Fenton. Production design Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

At Laemmle's Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 477-5581.

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