Volume 18 • Issue 30 | December 9 - 15, 2005

MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS
Opens December 9
Angelika Film Center
18 W. Houston Street
(212-995-2000; angelikafilmcenter.com)

photo courtesy of Alex Bailey

Kelly Reilly is under the tutelage of Judi Dench in Stephen Frears’ new musical comedy, “Mrs. Henderson Presents.”

Oscar odds good for ‘Mrs. Henderson Presents’

By Rania Richardson

“She was outrageous and mischievous. And she was blatantly rude. I loved it,” says Judi Dench on playing the lead in “Mrs. Henderson Presents.”

Based on a true story, the film follows Laura Henderson, a recent widow who renovates the rundown Windmill Theater in pre-WWII London and stages nude revues to reel in audiences. Bob Hoskins plays Vivian Van Damm, her theater manager and verbal sparring partner, for whom she harbors a secret crush. All performances are solid, but Dench is ravishing and inspirational as a widow who takes control of her life and proves that her best days are not behind her. Already, Oscar forecasters predict a nomination for Dench in the role.

Henderson and Van Damm circumvent local censors with motionless tableaux of unclad women in the name of “art,” á la Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” arguing that nudity need not titillate. “It wasn’t particularly sexual. It wasn’t jutting hips and pouting lips,” says Kelly Reilly who plays one of the young Windmill girls. “It was about something beautiful.”

In fact, according to director Stephen Frears, the mandate was to make an “innocent” film, and nudity was part of that innocence. Frears, who directed Daniel Day-Lewis as a gay Briton in “My Beautiful Launderette” (1984), Glenn Close and John Malkovich in “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988), and the interracial love story in “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002), is no stranger to pushing the envelope in sexual matters. Nevertheless, he cites—with a laugh—his insoluble repression as the reason he didn’t request disrobing for the casting of his Windmill girls. This is his first musical in a career of directing British television and an eclectic range of films.

Frears came on board the project before it was written, but unfortunately, Martin Sherman’s script is the weakest link. Sexless and sanitized, the film barely lives up to the tease of its description, lacking even a frisson of sizzle, which might be expected given its R rating. The drama feels contrived and predictable, with underdeveloped love and wartime conflicts.

It is lovely to look at, however. The sets, especially backstage, evoke glamour amidst a serious and resourceful WWII era. Onstage, musical numbers have the zest of the Ziegfeld Follies thanks to production design by Frears’ frequent collaborator Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski.

Sandy Powell’s smart costumes always make vivid the period they represent, whether in “The Wings of a Dove” (1997) or “Far from Heaven” (2002). In Powell’s wardrobe selections, Dench’s character is a style icon even at 70. She wears a felicitous mix from her international travels, including kimonos and ethnic jewelry, furs and sculptured hats. (Dench loved the costumes so much she’s kept an embroidered Chinese jacket and a jade necklace with hands on it, she says.)

Distributed by the newly formed Weinstein Company, “Mrs. Henderson Presents” will likely benefit from the Weinstein brothers’ aggressive Oscar campaigning. In 1999 the brothers, then at Miramax, were behind Dench’s supporting actress award for her performance in “Shakespeare in Love,” despite her mere eight minutes on screen. Frears credits Harvey and Bob Weinstein for his 1991 best director nomination for “The Grifters.” “I was completely gobsmacked,” he says of the unexpected one-time honor. “They’ve been very good to me,” he adds of his distributors.


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