They never closed. The famed Windmill theater in London prided itself on never closing its doors to audiences during the worst air raids of WWII. Yes, that is one way to remember the theater, but Mrs. Henderson Presents mentions this in passing, as a matter-of-fact. The movie is based on a tense and hilarious relationship between the theater’s owner, a recently widowed Laura Henderson (Judi Dench), and theater director, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) who was hired to assist her run the business properly. And although their stubborn and insightful dialogue gives the movie its backbone, there are many things presented here that go beyond the stoic theater performances, and beyond the nude scenes. Yes, the movie is also about nudity. You wanna read some more about nudity?…
Stephen Frears (director), when introducing the film to Toronto audiences back in September 2005 had said with elation: “I finally made my first nudie … my mum would be so proud”. Of course he was just getting the audience’s attention with the promise of naked women, just like I did above. In reality, the film (and the theater) deals with more serious issues. Deals with them light-heartedly, almost as if it all was a farce. Which takes away some of the weight of heavy themes, but doesn’t make them any less important. In a way, like Like I Beautiful, this film is about war that happens to everyday people – people who do have jobs, who may need entertainment, who may be entertainers. People who have to find laughter in everyday situations while everything is grim and hopeless. Laura Henderson is not such a person, and neither is Vivian Van Damm. They just run a theater (she, because she’s bored of being a typical widow, visiting friends for tea, exchanging innocent gossip, waiting for another close friend to kick the bucket); as for Van Damm, he likes a challenge. He almost walks away from the job, and that’s why he’s hired – he can tell it straight, and he won’t budge on principles. Despite Mrs. Henderson’s well-known eccentricities, he manages to keep the theater interesting, entertaining and profitable. They’re an odd couple, but somehow, their business works out. But then war happens.
Attendance goes down, and the theater must reinvent itself. First, they come up with the idea of 24-hour revues. Performers go on, and come off the stage, the show itself never stops. A big hit, but eventually it gets picked up by every other theater in the district, and The Windmill is in trouble again. Eventually, Laura Henderson beings to ponder what if the performers (girls, in this instance) were … nekkid. This is made as an observation, just like many other things in the movie – well, wouldn’t you pay to see naked people on stage? Today we call such places strip bars, and they are anything but art. Back in the 30s, Laura Henderson tried to pass this off as art – after all, all those nude paintings and sculptures in museums are popular, artistic, and in no way indecent. Right? Right?
That’s the argument she presents to Lord Chamberlain (played subtly by Christopher Guest), who obviously resists the idea of a theater “evolving” into such a questionable art form. Her sparring with Guest is incredibly funny, considering that nobody utters a bad word, or swears. It’s all in the high-society manners. It’s the blushes and pauses that make us laugh, it’s the discomfort with the human body that’s both fascinating and to some – offensive. And, just like many other themes, it’s presented as a side-note, a sub-plot. She met Lord Chamberlain because she needed to revitalize the business, and needed appropriate papers and licenses to undress the girls on stage and not get arrested (oh, how far we’ve come since then). Naturally, the show is a big hit, and the performances are done with taste, strategic lighting and under one condition – the girls – if they’re nude, like those museum paintings, must remain still while on stage.
There goes another series of funny, embarrassing situations, that makes this film such a delight. War planes are circling London skies, and the theater is putting no yet another classic theater scene, only with naked people on stage. The war does manage to come to the forefront of the story, as the girls get involved with regular visitors – soldiers on their way out to mainland – with some unexpected and sad results. But the film, once again, is not about that. It’s about the time period, the atmosphere on the streets, the revue shows on stage, and the roaring applause from the audience, from the fans who don’t have a lot of other places to go. Only that theater, which stayed open, and sheltered people from the air raids, and the show went on and on.
A little bit of history, a lot of British mannerisms and high-society gimmicks, two strong, engaging leads (the constant bickering between Dench and Hopkins is one of the highlights of the movie), and a little bit of nudity – to keep the teenage boys in the room interested. Mrs. Henderson Presents is not high art, even though it deals with heavy topics. It is very entertaining and (in light of recent Super Bowl debacle) – very keen about what is titillating vs. what is offensive. The argument held back in the 30 is still being fight in some theaters today. In a way, the movie is very topical.