February 9, 2006

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FILM: Mrs. Henderson Presents (R)
by Amy Diaz

Judi Dench has the sort of fun we all should get to have at age 71 — dressing up in the absurd costumes of the British upper class, prancing about a theater — in the rompy, kind-hearted Mrs. Henderson Presents.

Mrs. Henderson Presents is chockablock with naked boobies, lousy with melodrama, stuffed full of London-during-the-Blitz patriotism and surprisingly thick with strong performances. It is one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that could accurately be described as a rousing good time. And the fact that it is a bit silly bothers no one, not the actors and not me.

Take, for example, the title character, Mrs. Henderson (Dench). Her story sounds a bit like the pilot for a sitcom: after being widowed, she decides to purchase and fix up a theater to amuse herself. She’s a rich lady and she hires a veteran theater manager, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), with whom she constantly argues but is also a little besotted. At first, their venture is successful, offering the novelty of about 10 hours of constantly running shows. But then everybody does it and they need a new gimmick. Mrs. Henderson, a bit of an imp beneath the upper-crust regality, hits on the idea of having the girls be nude. The Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest) isn’t willing to put his stamp on it until they compromise on the idea of nudes that don’t move, like a tableau. The idea is that this makes these live nudes no different from Botticelli’s nudes, that it makes the girls art.

The living works of art stand on stage while dancers and singers move around them. The show, naturally, becomes wildly entertaining, especially to the soldiers who are suddenly flooding the city. For, though Mrs. Henderson first begins her showmanship in the relatively safety of 1937 she soon finds herself in a 1940 full of air raids and burning buildings.

Mrs. Henderson Presents is totally a showcase for the charm and talents of Dench. She gets a chance to do the queenly mix of persistence and elegance that she’s perfected so well over the years. She gets to have fun exhibiting the sparkle of a showman. She gets to engage in a little romance with Hoskins. And she gets to show some genuine emotion regarding World War II and the still-fresh pain she feels over the loss of her son in World War I. Pick the five or so most fun things you get to do at your job and think what your days would be like if you got to do that for a few months. And then were nominated for an Oscar for the results. Talk about your plum assignments.

Even though there are bits of seriousness about war and death and even though we get nods to ideas of patriotism and perseverance in times of trouble, Mrs. Henderson Presents just wants to have fun and wants us to have fun. It even manages the nifty trick of getting us to feel both scandalized and approving of the boobies’ appearance even though they are tamer than any given ad in a laddie magazine and most of the commercials you see on primetime television. B

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