Dame Judi Dench. She could read excerpts from Webster’s Dictionary and make it sound like Shakespeare. I’m a big fan, but I suspect that her recent Oscar nomination for her work in Stephen Frears’ Mrs. Henderson Presents says less about her much-adored acting chops than it does about the lack of good female roles out there (the Supporting Actress category shows similar limitations). Yet, beyond that, the Academy plays it safe most of the time. Dench is popular, her work is always good, so she’s the go-to girl any time a female acting category needs filling out (this is the only possible explanation for her nomination for Chocolat).
Like Chocolat, Mrs. Henderson Presents walks the fine line between cute and cutesy, between genuine sentiment and gooey, feel-good mush; and like Chocolat, it stumbles over that line more often than not. The story follows the title character, a recent widow with gobs of money and free time who buys an old theater on a lark and remodels it. Since she knows nothing about the logistics of running a theater, she hires a grumbly manager, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), and before you know it, the two decide that the way to make their venue stick out is to have nude girls onstage. It’s the late 1930s, and the threat of war lurking in the background eventually comes to the forefront threatening everyone in London.
Director Frears is a talented director whose work has been all over the map. His last outing, 2003’s Dirty Pretty Things, was much sharper and more original than his undertaking here. In many ways, it’s basically a paint-by-numbers British comedy: lovely costumes, period settings, polite dialogue and stiff upper lips. The film isn’t entirely predictable, yet in retrospect nothing feels like much of a surprise. Frears and screenwriter Martin Sherman squander the opportunity to make any real statements about World War II London. War footage and scenes of London air strikes are included, yet they feel more like plot devices rather than history.
Also squandered here is the cast. Dench has ample charms and her chemistry with Hoskins is great. Yet, after a promising start, it feels like they’re coasting, using those charms to cover the lack of story and wit. They’re playing at the idea of characters, rather than creating three-dimensional people. Even the usually nimble Christopher Guest (auteur of improvised cult faves A Mighty Wind and Best in Show) can’t make much out of his constipated role as the Lord Chancellor. William Young (winner of Pop Idol, the British precursor American Idol) shows promise in a small role as the star of Henderson?s revue, showing off his considerable vocal gifts, but the script never gives him or anyone else much of a character to work with.
Mrs. Henderson Presents has a great premise, but doesn’t know what to do with it. The abundant nudity, while reasonably tasteful, becomes pointless after awhile. Despite an early scene in which the actresses demand that the men present for rehearsal undress as well, the issue of nudity is never really dealt with. The male frontal nudity (which includes Hoskins) is split-second, while the female nudity pervades the entire film. The film essentially recreates the non-parity of Mrs. Henderson’s shows and doesn’t offer much commentary or perspective on it. It’s as if everyone involved is constantly chuckling to themselves, “Huh-huh. boobies. huh-huh.” Mrs. Henderson Presents is like the naked girls it so often showcases: pretty to look at, pleasant enough, but that’s about it.
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