One of the few good things to come out of the massive upheavals of the Great Depression and World War II was the new freedom that many young men and women found. Untethered from their homes and their traditional roles, moving from gossipy small towns to anonymous cities and from homey pleasures into the military or factory work, the young people of the “greatest generation” began to overcome their Puritanical upbringings and temporarily embrace a new hedonism, a kind of proto-Sexual Revolution. One of the markers of their new license was the birth of a golden age of softcore smut, the innocuously titillating scenes that appeared on burlesque stages, in stag films, and in the pages of magazines like Beauty Parade and Figure. It was a time when full-frontal nudity was forbidden, and every hearty young naked lady looked to have grown up on a Wisconsin dairy farm where everyone brushed and flossed four or five times daily. There’s a kind of purity and even a sense of propriety in vintage erotica that makes sex seem as clean and virtuous as a game of touch football with Wally and the Beav; even tied to a davenport, Bettie Page still looked like the girl next door. It’s to the vigorously scrubbed sexuality of that era that Mrs. Henderson Presents pays tribute.
Based loosely on actual events, the film covers the period from 1937 to 1941, beginning in the depths of the Depression, with the coming war looming in the background and gradually moving into center stage. Dame Judi Dench is Laura Henderson, the wife of a British official formerly posted to India. When he dies suddenly, leaving her a vast fortune, she doesn’t know what to do with herself. She’s childless, having lost her only son in the First World War, and she has no desire to play the grieving widow; the solicitousness of friends and her husband’s colleagues only annoys her. By nature she’s an active, vigorous person, a bit of a spitfire, and a quiet life at home is out of the question. She tries charity but doesn’t fit in: At a meeting to plan a home for unwed mothers, the other philanthropists stress the necessity of not publicly revealing the institution’s purpose, and she cries out, dismayed, “But I’ve told all my friends that I’m helping build a home for future bastards!”
Her inspiration comes when her car happens by the Windmill theater, a former music hall that now sits derelict and up for sale. A true dilettante, she makes the purchase without a second thought and begins renovations immediately. To run the show, she recruits Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), an experienced theatrical producer with a pomaded mane of grey and white striped hair. Van Damm is a benevolent tyrant, alternately bullying and manipulating people into doing what he wants, and he’ll go to almost any lengths to put on a successful show. To give the Windmill a competitive edge, he conceives of having continuous performances throughout the day and into the evening, something that’s never been done in England before. He christens his production “Revudeville” and it’s an instant success, spawning a sea of knock-offs across the West End. The competition soon becomes such that the show can’t keep up; it’s driven into the red by the fallout from its own success.
To make the Windmill profitable, the show needs a new gimmick, something that can’t be easily replicated. Inspired by the risque shows at Paris’ Moulin Rouge, Mrs. Henderson insists that the girls should go nude. She quickly dispenses with the small matter of public nudity being illegal, arranging a personal meeting with her old friend the Lord Chamberlain (played, in an amusingly twittish cameo, by Christopher Guest, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is actually a baron). He agrees to her proposal, with the stipulation that the show must be “artistic”; the girls can take off their clothes so long they pose like classical sculptures and don’t move, not an inch. Van Damm recruits a bevy of beautiful young women and persuades them to get their kits off by delivering a pep talk invoking art, nature, and, finally, God. When the show premieres, Mrs. Henderson is as good as her word — the girls are arranged in tastefully framed, thoughtfully lit tableaux vivant. Though the mode of presentation begins as only a means to get away with the nudity, its idealization of the girls (and they have some great figures — natural and voluptuous but never plump — that stand as a rebuke to Hollywood’s busty stick figures) gives them a dignity that prevents their exposure from feeling exploitative; Van Damm encourages the girls to think of themselves as artists, and he and Mrs. Henderson treat them with the respect they would any other performer. The show is an immediate sensation, particularly among the young servicemen beginning to ship off to war, and Mrs. Henderson is thrilled, made to feel young again by the reflected beauty of the nubile girls. Soon the Blitz brings danger right to the theater door, but the performers maintain their spunk in spite of everything and, throughout the bombing, the Windmill never closes, becoming the only theater still playing in the West End.
Dench’s performance is wonderful fun. Mrs. Henderson is a frivolous, self-indulgent sort, and she can be infuriatingly spoiled and short-sighted, but there’s never any doubt that her heart is in the right place. She refuses to behave in the manner expected of a woman of her class, and her kindness, high spirits, and wicked sense of humor make her a sort of den mother to the girls. Despite her tendency to treat everything as a lark, she has a seriousness of purpose that isn’t obvious at first. At the film’s climax, she presents a compassionate, moral argument in favor of prurience that makes the girls’ displays seem almost noble.
Mrs. Henderson Presents was directed by Stephen Frears, who built his reputation on thoughtful films about inequities of race, class, and sexual orientation (and damaged it with Hollywood movies like Mary Reilly and The Hi-Lo Country). His most recent film, Dirty Pretty Things, was a beautiful, lacerating drama about illegal immigrants living by the skin of their teeth on London’s fringes. He’s gone in a very different direction here, paying tribute to classic backstage musicals and keep-the-home-fires-burning wartime melodramas like Mrs. Miniver, and he employs many of their quaint conventions. Cinematographer Andrew Dunn shot the film with a bright Technicolor palette that evokes movies, photos, and paintings of the period.
The film skirts right up to the edges of being a musical, but it never quite tips over, in part because the music functions more as an element of the period setting than a narrative device. George Fenton’s score contains some predictable motifs, but it’s more than serviceable, and it’s complemented by a number of real 1930s and ’40s hits by composers including Benny Goodman, Jerome Kern, and Frank Loesser, many of them sung by Will Young (the first winner of Britain’s “Pop Idol”), who plays Bertie, the Windmill’s star performer. The songs help set the appropriate mood, but not all of them hold up well to modern ears; despite Young’s enormous popularity in the UK, it’s hard to imagine “Girl in the Little Green Hat” finding its way onto many iPods.
Mrs. Henderson Presents is a pleasant trifle but not much more. Nudity aside, the film often feels like a period artifact: Its humor is gently risque, with a jaunty, old-fashioned tone. Paradoxically, though, the style it recreates is so very old that it doesn’t seem tired. There hasn’t been much of this kind of filmmaking in the past 50 years, so it’s not overfamiliar, and there’s a grace in Frears’ old-fashioned showmanship and narrative economy. Even in the few scenes that deal with weightier topics, the film has a loose, carefree quality. It’s a celebration of good, clean hedonism in the face of war’s brutality and a reminder of the irony of sexual repression: When people overcome it, they usually have more fun than if they’d started out libertines.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Mrs. Henderson Presents / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()