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Mrs Henderson Presents, by Chantal Cornut-Gentille

Mrs Henderson presents: a mildly naughty,  "Little Island" tale.
Mrs Henderson Presents (Stephen Frears, 2005).  

By Chantal Cornut-Gentille.

  While there have been other films about the Windmill Theatre – notably, Tonight and Every Night (Victor Saville, 1945), starring Rita Hayworth as a Windmill girl –  this is the first film, as viewers are informed following the opening credits, to tell the “true” story of Laura Henderson, who died in 1944. That Mrs. Henderson Presents was directed by Stephen Frears may have come as a surprise to those more acquainted with the edgier films he made during the decade dominated by Thatcherism (i.e., My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Sammie and Rosie Get Laid  (1987), Prick up your Ears (1987)). 

On this occasion, Frears has chosen to give life to  another, plume-clad, “Iron Lady”: a  recently widowed, highly independent and entrepreneurial “grande dame,” played with formidable authority by Judi Dench (nominated in this year’s Oscar Awards for Best Performance as lead actress). The result is a most eclectic film, one in which different genres meet and combine: heritage, in the historical (re)presentation of mid-forties London life, light-hearted comedy –especially in the combative, Hepburn-Tracy-type of rapport between the two main protagonists, and drama (often lurking in the background) – all blended together in a musical-like format.  In this respect,  Frears’s charming, fact-inspired, period piece will no doubt  appeal to the same audiences that embraced Calender Girls (Nigel Cole, 2003), with its portrayal of mature women’s benevolent entrepreneurial endeavours, and to people who enjoy polite, intimate and typically well-acted, British films like Mrs Brown (John Madden, 1997)  and Lavender Ladies (Charles Dance, 2004).

Set in the late 1930s, Mrs. Henderson Presents opens with Mr. Henderson's London funeral. His widow, Laura Henderson, clearly shuns the traditional grieving wife role: tired of smiling at guests, she takes to the river for some vigorous rowing in full funeral attire. Her closest friend, the also widowed Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow), advises her to keep busy with such “consolations” as bridge-playing, purchases, charity work and lovers as a cure against  boredom, dejection and loneliness. However, Laura is too restless and energetic to engage in such trivial matters. In an act of impulsiveness, she decides instead to buy a derelict Soho theatre on Great Windmill Street. Once the building has been thoroughly renovated, the now eager and animated widow, conscious of her lack of expertise in theatre matters, chooses to hire Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) as impresario to stage musical revues. He agrees to take on the job only if he can exercise complete artistic control. With the aim of launching the theatre in a grand way, he comes up with the highly innovative scheme of offering non-stop vaudeville. Soon after auditions for the first show begin, Laura finds herself banned from the premises by her own theatre manager who thinks her all but impossible because of her  constant meddling and tempestuous behaviour. Initially, the brainwave of “round-the-clock” performances brings crowds packing into the theatre. However, as rival show-houses start emulating the concept, the Windmill tumbles into hard times. This is when Laura Henderson hits on the idea of imitating the venue's Paris namesake, the Moulin Rouge, by staging nude revues. Her campaign to win government approval for such a daring display results in a priceless exchange with the Lord Chamberlain who licenses live shows in Britain. In her usual manner, Mrs. Henderson manages to overcome this formidable obstacle by convincing the comically starchy Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest), a personal friend of hers, that her presentations of naked women will be “art” and that as such they should be permitted in much the same way museums display nudity without censure. Once official censorship has successfully been skirted as per Laura’s promise that Windmill will only have girls pose motionless on stage, like statues, Van Damm concocts a series of sumptuous nude “tableaux vivants,” based around such themes as Mermaids, Red Indians and Britannia. Female nudity thus pervades the remainder of the story. And yet, interestingly, it is never dealt with as an issue – except perhaps in an early rehearsal scene in which the actresses demand that the men present undress as well! In any case, with such a titillating bait, crowds are lured back into the theatre and business picks up again. Before long, success is so total (especially after the emotionally stirring version of La Marseillaise amidst air raids) that the Windmill’s nude revues actually grow to be a morale-booster for soldiers and citizens enduring nightly Luftwaffe bombings over London.   

With the onset of war however the film gets more serious and the plot loses some of its pace and substance. In other words, although Frears dramatises with extreme effectiveness various song-and-dance numbers, the offstage life and companionship of company members and Laura Henderson’s attempts to sneak in behind the scenes, the second part of the story lacks the romp, rhythm and narrative backbone of the film’s first half. A case in point could be the artificial conflict created around the late revelation that Vivian is married. For all Laura Henderson’s (supposed) romantic feelings for him, she has too much “savoir-faire” and is too refined and self-possessed a woman to be credibly overpowered the way the script would have it. Likewise, her retreat from the theatre and subsequent return(s) to spy and meddle feel more like mere plot-fillers than situations designed to drive the action forward. Nor does the subplot in which Mrs. Henderson plays matchmaker with tragic results between a spellbound soldier and the revue's blonde centrepiece, Maureen (Kelly Reilly,) add anything essential to the film’s storyline. Even Mrs Henderson’s public vindication, in a desperate move to keep the Windmill open, of her commitment not just to the theatre but to its “naughty” nude tableaux somehow falls short of the impact and emotional chords it was intended to strike, especially as her revelations come as no surprise to the audience, already aware of the tragic loss in her past.

If the second part of the film lacks meaty plot-substance, Frears’ superlative sets and cinematography more than compensate by bringing great detail to a recreation of England during World War II and to conveying a convincing feel of the period. By rooting itself in the war years, Mrs. Henderson Presents consistently trades on those sacrosanct tenets of British national identity – the Blitz spirit and the “Little Island” idea of a nation of Anglo-Saxons, bound together in courage and common cause under threat from a malign external force. Boasting a nostalgic mood, the film is thus a tribute to the pluck and indomitable spirit of the British in times of crisis … even though the Windmill girls are shown doing their patriotic duty by appearing nude and inspiring the departing troops! On this reading, the film serves as a reminder of how important art and entertainment can be in a time of war. Indeed, as Mrs Henderson begs the authorities to understand in her speech outside the closed theatre: “You can take these young soldiers' lives. But before you do, don't take their joy.”  In this respect, an undeniable parallel surfaces between Frears’ representation of the stiff-upper-lip resilience of the Windmill cast during World War II and the West End's swiftness in bouncing back to full operations after last  summer's terrorist attacks. This said, in these days and times of looming civilisation confrontations, one does also cringe at the thought of how  this eulogy to the important function of entertainment in  periods of danger  is so wilfully misrepresentative of the country it is supposedly describing. After all, isn’t Britain one of the few countries that still openly supports the war on Iraq?

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