Mrs. Henderson, an upper-class woman living in London in the 1930s, is well into her 70s when she loses her husband and consequentially finds herself at loose ends. At the suggestion of one of her friends, she decides to pursue a hobby. In an intoxication of freedom and romantic frenzy, she buys the Windmill Theatre and produces nude vaudeville – an unthinkable undertaking. “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” directed by Stephen Frears, opens with the sweet, lighthearted touch present in Mrs. Henderson’s (Judi Dench) hilarious demeanor, her tenderly insulting banter with Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), Christopher Guest’s delightful cameo as the foppish, uncomfortable Lord Cromer, and the honest camaraderie between the showgirls of their act, “Revuedeville.”
Unfortunately, placing the tale at the start of the Blitz in 1939, the story becomes distressing and tragic. The film expertly illustrates the devastating effects of WWII: the sacrifices that are made, the fear and panic, and the regret of those mothers who mourn the loss of their sons. It also draws some interesting parallels between war then and war now. The sheer determination and fierce loyalty of the company that ensures its survival also gives the film its core strength. The ensemble of characters outlines the rigid British class distinctions of the time and many of the relationships in the movie, while remaining socially realistic, transcend these borders. “Mrs. Henderson Presents” walks many lines, as do its actors. Mrs. Henderson herself is absurd but not unsympathetic; she never loses our affection or our respect. Van Damm is sharp, blunt and a little tawdry without coming across as cruel or slimy. Maureen (Kelly Reilly) is poised precariously on the edge of unendurable ice-queen indifference, yet she carries her immense sorrow with exquisite pride and grace. We may feel pity for her circumstances, but never for her, although we could do so easily if she wanted us to.
The film as a whole tiptoes between dramatic high-art and a bawdy, campy comedy, balancing the two exquisitely. The nudity in the acts was both tasteful and artistically executed, lending it sufficient sex appeal without allowing the film to fall into the realm of burlesque. “Mrs. Henderson Presents” draws you into its experiences, realizations, fun and sorrow so subtly that you have trouble registering your tears and your laughter until you realize how hard you have fallen or how high you have risen in empathy for the characters. It is an irresistible film that leaves a mark, just as the Windmill Theatre did.