The Windmill Theatre in London’s West End was famous for two things. First, in the late 1930s, it was London’s first legitimate theater to feature nude women onstage. Second, during Germany’s Blitz of London during World War II, the Windmill was the only theater that never ceased operations.
If you find it difficult to work up a lump in your throat for the brave souls who made sure audiences still had a chance to look at naked ladies even though bombs were falling all around them, “Mrs Henderson Presents” will not do much to persuade you otherwise. The point is made by the film, and by the Mrs. Henderson of the title, that since the women are in tableau — i.e., just posing, motionless — gazing upon them is no different from viewing nude paintings in a museum.
Whether you buy that argument or not, “Mrs Henderson Presents” is a humorous, daft little film about a humorous, daft little lady. Played by Judi Dench, the wealthy Mrs. Henderson is widowed in 1937 and finds that, after a life of being a diplomat’s wife, she has no idea how the real world operates, much less what she should do in it. On a whim, she buys a boarded-up old theater. Why, when the blues have got you down, puttin’ on a show is just what the doctor ordered!
She hires a theater manager named Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), who is out of work (like much of London at the time) and eager to take control of a new project. This in itself is problematic: Van Damm and Mrs. Henderson both like to control things. Nonetheless, they reach a consensus on the show to be staged. They call it “Revudeville,” the title being a rather awkward combination of “revue” (a pastiche of song-and-dance numbers) and “vaudeville.” Comedy sketches, dance routines, corny jokes and plenty of music comprise the show.
As the first American-style vaudeville show in London — and partly owing to Mrs. Henderson’s unusual idea of having shows all day long instead of just one or two in the evening — it’s an instant hit. But soon everyone is doing vaudeville, and the Windmill is no longer a novelty. How to revive attendance? Mrs. Henderson and Van Damm come up with the same answer that countless showmen before and since have come up with: nudity.
It is local magistrate Lord Cromer (very amusingly played by Christopher Guest) who reluctantly agrees, thanks to Mrs. Henderson’s persuasion — a mix of matronly kindness and imperious don’t-mess-with-me attitude — that if the nude women don’t move, it’s nothing more than a living art exhibit. But they mustn’t move! If they move, the show becomes indecent.
The screenplay, by playwright Martin Sherman, gets plenty of mileage out of the juxtaposition between veddy proper English society and the inherently bawdy nature of Mrs. Henderson’s proposed show. (Sure, they’re calling it “art” to make it legal, but they know it will be soldiers on leave filling the seats, not museum patrons.) Mrs. Henderson, who can do the high British manners thing but prefers bluntness, has an amusingly candid conversation with Lord Cromer over the technicalities of what will be visible and what will be obscured by shadows. And during the auditions, the actresses stand there naked while Van Damm and his choreographer, the “otherwise inclined” Bertie (Will Young), discuss each girl’s, um, merits. (There is some controversy over whether a particular nipple is “British” enough, or whether it might be a little too Italian in appearance.)
The show is a hit, as you might expect, and one of the film’s subtle jokes is that Revudeville hasn’t changed; all they’ve done is add nude women to serve as set decorations. (You’re singing a song about America? Well, there’s a naked girl holding a torch.) The show that people were tired of before, all of a sudden they love it, now that there’s eye candy.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Henderson and Van Damm have a spat over something foolish, and the movie dwells on it far too long. When Harry and Ron had a dumb fight in the most recent Harry Potter movie, you can chalk it up to their being 14. But Mrs. Henderson and Van Damm are well beyond middle age. I expect them to have more intriguing arguments than her being jealous when she finds out he’s married. (Dench’s last film, “Ladies in Lavender,” also required her to have an unrequited crush on someone. I must say, a lovelorn Judi Dench is not one I care to see very often.)
Dench is a trouper from way back — she’s almost old enough to have been one of these Windmill girls, but not quite — and she’s game for all the silliness this film puts her through. (She wears a bear costume at one point.) Yet even when it seems Mrs. Henderson will become too eccentric, too “edgy,” too self-consciously “different,” Dench does something to bring her back down to earth and make her seem real again.
Director Stephen Frears (“High Fidelity,” “Dangerous Liaisons”) generally runs a well-oiled machine here, with Bob Hoskins delivering good work and even the pop-star-turned-actor Will Young doing better than expected as Van Damm’s assistant. Frears does let things get out of hand near the end, when Mrs. Henderson must (sigh) deliver a rousing speech outside the theater to convince the authorities to keep the Windmill open despite the Blitz; that’s probably the most cliché moment in the film.
Would it have been possible to make a film ABOUT nudity without actually featuring any nudity? Perhaps. But maybe that would have defeated part of the film’s point, which was to demonstrate that nudity is not the same thing as sexuality. Indeed, while nudity (mostly in the form of topless ladies) abounds here, there is no sex. Is it a “dirty movie” anyway? Depends on your point of view. Is it funny? Oh yes. Did I mention Judi Dench wears a bear costume?
B (1 hr., 43 min.; )