2006-02-24 / Columnists


By Robert Snyder

When Dame Judi Dench exploded on the screen in “Mrs. Brown” a decade ago, most Americans had never heard of this English acting resource. Now she is known to mainstream audiences as the successor to James Bond’s boss, M. However, she is still a formidable thespian. As with “Mrs. Brown,” she proves it again in another delightful and moving “Mrs.” movie, “Mrs. Henderson Presents.”

Based on a true story, the witty Martin Sherman script directed by Stephen Frears, concerns an elderly widow, Laura Henderson (Dench), with nothing but time and money on her hands. After sticking her fingers at needlepoint, she has a creative epiphany and buys a broken-down theater in London’s Soho district. Joining up with noted impresario Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), she stages a “non-stop revue” to great success. But other theaters soon copy the format, almost driving her out of business.

Then, she comes up with another brainstorm. “Let’s have naked girls. Don’t you think?” she asks her flabbergasted partner.

The problem is that this is 1930’s England and nudity is forbidden in the theater. Not to be thwarted, Mrs. Henderson meets with the Lord Chamberlain, (Christopher Guest), whom she’s known since he was a little boy “I’ll ask Tommy for a permit,” she says.

At a very funny luncheon, they determine that nudity is art when the models don’t move, which is permissible; but his Lordship is still worried about the display of the women’s genitalia. “Will you show the foliage?” he asks. After suggesting that he try the cheese, she wonders, “Why are men always so concerned about ‘the Midlands?’” She then promises that the stage lighting will be appropriately subtle. With government approval, the show goes on, complete with the new “artistic tableaux,” and is an instant hit. When World War II breaks out, the show continues throughout the bomb blitz because the theater is underground and somewhat safe.

An obvious winner with servicemen, the show also provides girls for the soldiers to see after the performances. Matchmaker that she is, Mrs. Henderson sets up one “innocent-faced” Army man with shy nude model Maureen (Kelly Reilly), to seriously tragic results. Van Damm, who has his own love-hate relationship with his patroness, is outraged and tells the meddling matriarch to stay out of other people’s business.

We then learn that Mrs. Henderson’s only child, a son who was killed in the First World War, left behind a “French postcard” among his possessions. Because it is unlikely that her boy had ever seen a real-life nude woman, Mrs. Henderson gives an emotional speech, revealing her determination that the new generation of British servicemen would not share the same fate. “Mrs. Henderson Presents” has everything one would want in a movie: humor, tragedy, show-stopping production numbers and, of course, nude girls. It also has the great Judi Dench.

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