With the obvious exception of Dame Judi Dench’s deserved Oscar nomination for the title role, “Mrs. Henderson Presents” has not received a great deal of attention. Still, it is a charming and quirky film that showcases the talents of Dench and costar Bob Hoskins, who once again prove themselves worthy of their imminent status at the top of the list of England’s finest actors. “Mrs. Henderson Presents” is a quiet and subtle film and although it may not jump out in a year with heavy hitters like “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crash” making the big waves, it stands as a refreshing antidote to the familiarity of Hollywood pictures and their incessant pandering to their perception of American audiences.
First of all, “Mrs. Henderson Presents” resonates as a distinctly British story. Set amidst the air raid sirens of the German invasion during World War 2, “Mrs. Henderson” has an authenticity sadly lacking from recent films like Woody Allen’s “Match Point,” whose trite tale of British privilege came off about as accurately English as Paul Simon’s “Graceland” was African.
The story of widow Laura Henderson (Dench) is inspired by real people. Henderson shocks everyone around her by purchasing the decrepit Windmill Theater shortly after her husband’s death. She hires the precocious Vivian Van Damm (Hoskins), an experienced theater man, to manage the theater’s affairs and direct its productions. They are a smashing success until competing theaters around town copy their formula. Henderson again stuns everyone when she challenges all previous conventions and suggests they put on the first nude review. Their success is once again threatened, this time by the darkening dust cloud of ever-present bombings just outside the theater walls, as Germany’s Luftwaffe attempt to bring down London and the Windmill Theater along with it. While “Mrs. Henderson Presents” does occasionally teeter on the edge of stuffy at times, British director Stephen Frears (“Hi-Fidelity” “Dangerous Liasons”) keeps the film moving along at a reasonable clip.
Dench and Hoskins are superb together, Henderson and Van Damm’s cantankerous relationship provides the constant spark at the heart of the film’s plot. American comedy genius Christopher Guest proves again he can do most anything by playing it entirely straight as Lord Cromer, the British official Henderson must persuade to allow the show’s artistic nudity. Guest has once again found good use for his incredibly accurate British accent, one which has served him well in comedy classics “This is Spinal Tap” and “The Princess Bride.”
Clearly, “Mrs. Henderson Presents” is probably not for movie fans whose tastes are limited to smashups starring the Rock or gutter ball comedies featuring names like Sandler, Vaughn or Schneider. However, if you’re someone who occasionally enjoys a Kenneth Brannagh sleepfest, “Mrs. Henderson Presents” will dazzle you and warm your tea-loving heart.