Mrs Henderson Presents

(Stephen Frears, UK, 2005)


Stephen Frears is among those filmmakers who loudly reject the lofty idea of the director as auteur. As far as he is concerned, the director is not a visionary who projects personal obsessions and builds a signature style, but a professional who does his or her level best to serve the specific project at hand.

That is why Frears’ films are usually so different, one to the next – and why, at their best, the level of craft compares favourably with that of his mentor, Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success, 1957), another director who preferred to be a sly chameleon rather than a recognisable auteur.

So Mrs Henderson Presents may not have much in common with any previous Frears movie, but it is nonetheless a satisfying, well-wrought piece of entertainment. Based on the true history of London’s Windmill Theatre, it traces the feisty alliance between a bored, elderly widow, Laura Henderson (Judi Dench), and the creatively ambitious manager she hires to run her theatre, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins).

The film stretches one humorous idea a very long way. Facing the rigid censorship regulations of the 1930s, Henderson and Van Damm discover that the only way they can include the titillation of nudity in their shows is to keep the actors stock still. Hence every saucy revue number comes with a High Art element: naked girls standing for historical or mythic figures. (This same detail appears in a great film from that decade, Max Ophüls’ Sans lendemain [1939].)

Much of the incidental wit in this story comes from Mrs Henderson’s inability to keep her socially progressive agenda clear. In her appeals to the natural goodness of the masses with whom she has never mingled, she is likely to refer to “soup lines” instead of “bread lines”. Only the daunting experience of the Blitz can bring her closer to the common person’s reality.

But Mrs Henderson does have an earthy side just busting to reveal itself – particularly when she speaks candidly to upright government representatives about the “pussy” component of the Windmill’s shows. And, in a touching public speech, she offers an ode to the working class’s healthy taste for a little harmless pornography, and caps it off with a bracingly vulgar display of swearing.

Those with a well-cultivated taste for the comedy of British manners will find much to enjoy in Mrs Henderson Presents.

MORE Frears: Dirty Pretty Things, Liam, The Snapper, The Van, The Queen, Mary Reilly, Hero

© Adrian Martin December 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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