Very Little Sex, Please -- We're British

Washington City Paper | January 13, 2006
Although Mrs. Henderson Presents transpires mostly during World War II, its principal battles are fought not in the skies above London, but in its theater district. Freshly widowed and quickly bored, a society matron decides to buy a West End vaudeville theater and, when it fails to draw crowds, to introduce a novel attraction: female nudity, à la Parisian cabarets. The authorities object but ultimately sanction the audacious idea on the condition that the naked women pose in static tableaux, as motionless as any inanimate prop. This, alas, is a metaphor for the entire film: Though not without moments of BBC-sitcom appeal, the undertaking is essentially lifeless.

Tristan & Isolde’s reticence about nudity might suggest otherwise, but undraped British showgirls posing in solemn parodies of old-master paintings are not so shocking these days as they might have been in 1940. And the perverse fact that some Britons were having great fun during the Blitz is a poorly kept secret, thanks not only to John Boorman’s Hope and Glory but also to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That leaves Mrs. Henderson Presents with only one flash of titillation: Dame Judi Dench’s gamely uttering the word “pussy.” As Laura Henderson, Dench is supposed to be dotty, snobby, and detached from the real world. But she has a (sort of) hidden tragedy that (kind of) deepens her overmoneyed superficiality, as well as a gift for uttering the occasional air-clearing vulgarity. Both serve her well when battling official censor Lord Cromer, although in these exchanges Mrs. H’s principal advantage is that she’s played by Dench and her antagonist by the hopelessly out-of-his-league Christopher Guest.

“Inspired by true events” but rendered utterly artificial by director Stephen Frears and scripter Martin Sherman, Mrs. Henderson Presents opens with self-consciously old-fashioned animated credits. It then cuts to the 1937 funeral of Mr. Henderson, an important sort of fellow who spent many of his years in British-ruled India. There, his widow explains, “there was always someone to look down on.” Thus her need to find new people to command, beginning with theatrical impresario Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins in a swept-back gray wig). Van Damm is “foreign”—that is, Dutch—“and Jewish,” Mrs. Henderson remarks superciliously, and her lighthearted disapproval of these attributes is supposed to be a matter of continuing fun. Even more unconvincingly, it’s proposed as a source of pathos when German troops seize Holland and begin arresting Van Damm’s relatives.

All of the filmmakers’ efforts to ground this trifle in the horrors of World War II prove as flat as the rooftop nightscapes that depict London under bombardment. Frears, who’s made the city itself the subject of such pictures as Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Dirty Pretty Things, here settles for—or perhaps intends—a London that’s basically a theatrical backdrop. The script, meanwhile, features predictable backstage-dramedy business, from the serendipitous assembling of the cast to recurrent sniping between backer (Henderson) and director (Van Damm). At one point, the latter bars the former from the theater, leaving her to slip in sheepishly, like a child working her way step by step downstairs to a grown-ups’ party.

With misplaced tenderness toward young soldiers, Mrs. Henderson stage-manages a romance between a seemingly earnest young recruit and the company’s leading nudie (Kelly Reilly). This has an outcome that’s meant to be tragic but plays as merely convenient. In that regard, the subplot is pretty much like the rest of Mrs. Henderson Presents, a movie that makes both death and pussy seem matters of little consequence.

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