Mrs Henderson Presents (2005)

Starring: Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Will Young, Kelly Reilly, Thelma Barlow, Christopher Guest

Directed by: Stephen Frears

Rating: 1 2 3 4 and a half

The opening titles to Mrs Henderson Presents are really rather lovely. Elegant, colourful and amusing, the kitsch art deco figures and bright showbiz typography promise a film that will be stylish, clever, frothy and just a little bit cheeky. Does the film live up to this promise? Yes, but it's also so much more.

Kelly Reilly bares all in Mrs Henderson Presents

'Inspired by true events.' the film is based around the story of rich widow Laura Henderson (Judi Dench), who, bored after her husband's death, decides, on a whim, to buy a theatre. To manage it she engages vaudeville impresario Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) who takes the rich widow's toy and turns it into a roaring success. But as ticket sales begin to slump, the redoubtable Mrs H has a new plan to shake things up a bit: nudity. Because this is late 1930s Britain, and nakedness on stage is simply not done. All theatrical works require a licence from the Lord Chancellor, and nipples and dangly bits are a no-no. But that isn't about to stop Mrs Henderson, who proceeds to browbeat/bribe her old friend Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest, aka Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel) into giving her permission to display naked girls on stage. provided they don't move, that is.

Sounds like a plot for a Carry On film? Maybe, but it's done so beautifully and so very, very tastefully that you can't help but applaud wildly as Mrs Henderson gallantly lays down the foundation for today's nasty strip bars and lap dancing clubs. Hmmm.

But there's more to Mrs Henderson Presents than bare flesh and wobbly bits. It may start off like a charmingly naughty Ealing comedy, but the film, like its star, is made of sterner stuff. As war breaks and Mrs Henderson and Van Damm resolutely refuse to close the Windmill Theatre, it becomes a refuge for cast and crew and a rite de passage for young soldiers on their way to war. But as Mrs Henderson knows from bitter experience, war is not a joke, and the film soon tips over into tragedy (hankies at the ready, folks - it's very, very moving) before picking itself up with true British grit to present us with a most triumphant ending.

Mrs Henderson Presents is a truly delightful film. The script sparkles with wit and, as the titles promise, the look of the film is just gorgeous: from the lavish costumes and elegant coiffeurs of the cast (both onstage and off) to the marvellously tacky tableaux of artistically posed ladies wearing very, very little to the panoramic shots of Blitz-torn London, visually, Mrs Henderson presents is a treat from start to finish.

Bob Hoskins as Vivian Van Damm and Judi Dench as Mrs Henderson in Mrs Henderson Presents

And then there are the performances, all of which are uniformly excellent. Judi Dench is perfect as the rude, pushy, charming, golden hearted Laura Henderson and there is great chemistry between her and Bob Hoskins, who has the dapper, avuncular Van Damm down to a T. The Libertine's tart with a heart Kelly Reilly turns in another emotive performance as nude starlet Maureen, while Corrie's Thelma Barlow is clearly having a ball playing Mrs Henderson's best friend, swapping her dinner lady's overall for furs, tiaras and gravity defying wigs. Last but not least, Will Young, in his first acting role as the revue's leading man, may only be playing a pastiche of himself, but he does it with great style and finesse - and besides, playing yourself isn't always easy, as anyone who's seen Desperately Seeking Susan will agree.

Moving, funny, charming, intelligent, heart warming and visually sumptuous, the naughty but nice Mrs Henderson Presents is good old fashioned British comedy drama at its best - every bit as entertaining and mischievous as a night at the Windmill Theatre.

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