Mrs. Henderson Presents Dench Shines in British Mischief

As an eccentric British widow turned theater matron who seeks to revive London’s Windmill Theatre, the indomitable Judi Dench does another top job in director Stephen Frears’ Mrs. Henderson Presents. The bright script by Martin Sherman keeps this reality-based story in good taste while retaining its marvelous sense of mischief and amusement.

Urged by a friend not to let herself waste away following the death of her husband, Mrs. Henderson tires of being a proper old lady and buys the theater, persuading a Jewish manager (Bob Hoskins, who also executive produces, meeting Miss Dench eye to eye) to run the place. That raises eyebrows.

The tattered Soho theater has to start filling the seats, so rebellious Mrs. Henderson, who is also nursing a secret from the past, startles 1937 London by allowing her manager to stage Vaudeville-type entertainment around the clock. That gets attention.

It also sells tickets. When competitors copy the Windmill’s innovative approach, the battleaxe ups the ante with a proposal to put live, nude girls on stage, with manager Hoskins scouting for the “perfect English roses” and finding an impudent blonde (Kelly Reilly) whose star quality is matched by a great pair of gams. That’s bound to cheer Britain’s soldier boys.

It does, but that’s not all the Windmill’s naked stage actresses get, which means more than they bargained for. Worse, the government regulates entertainment (sounds familiar) and refuses to allow the Windmill to flash some flesh for young men fighting for their lives.

As Mrs. Henderson and her manager—with whom she spars so often he bans her from the theater—fight back and stir it up in London’s theater community, the war with National Socialist Germany worsens. The Nazi bombing blitz on London changes everything.

That includes Mrs. Henderson, and Judi Dench is as magnificent as ever in the title role. She emits an energy strong enough to power the movie, taking it down at the right moment, when she shows her true colors. She is rude, outrageous, and full of the steely spirit that brought Britain through its darkest hours.

It isn’t easy putting on a show while the city’s being blown to bits, and it might not seem terribly important, either, yet that is exactly the case that dear Mrs. Henderson Presents. With people dying, the city in ruins, and people feeling blue, a wild old widow provided a temporary escape from suffering. She did it with a flair for drama, and with her own sad song to sing.

Miss Dench flirts with Hoskins, dresses in a bear costume and she is thoroughly, wonderfully British, allowing cheeky Mrs. Henderson Presents to pull it off like a classic. With snappy musical numbers, a sporting cast and those nude girls and what they represent, the Weinstein Company’s movie swings and shines like Hollywood used to do.

Originally published January 14, 2006 by Box Office Mojo

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