*Mrs. Henderson Presents (R)
Kimball's Twin Peak
The studied British theatricality and sharp wit of Mrs. Henderson Presents are likely to make it a favorite among nostalgiaphiles, theater buffs and the tea-and-crumpets set. Sailing along on the strength of another showy performance by Judi Dench, Stephen Frears' period frolic is this year's Being Julia, adorned with the same kind of high-toned baubles and bitchy bons mots.
Playwright Martin Sherman (best known for Bent and Rose) has injected enough casual venom into the dialogue that collectors of acerbic insult and elegant aphorism are bound to be pleased even when the dramatic action slows to a crawl. The film is based on real events, and let's hope they moved along faster than some of these do.
When it comes to upstaging the universe, Dame Judi certainly is the trouper that Annette Bening was, and then some. Here she portrays an imperious septuagenarian named Laura Henderson who, after three decades in India, returns to pre-World War II London, buries her husband and promptly sinks his leftover millions into a decrepit theater on Soho's Great Windmill Street.
Then she hires a stylish impresario named Vivian Van Dam (veteran Bob Hoskins) to stage musical revues and quickly forges a relationship with her new collaborator that ranges from comically antagonistic to downright bloody. Their barbed, beautifully timed exchanges are a pleasure to hear and to watch, as though we were seeing Tracy and Hepburn reborn.
Between Laura's energy and Vivian's business wisdom, they soon have a hit on their hands with nonstop vaudeville shows, featuring an irrepressible Will Young as the obligatory gay song-and-dance man, Bertie. But the competition catches on, and when it comes time to tweak the fare, our dauntless heroine knows just what to do.
Mimicking the famed Moulin Rouge in Paris, the Windmill Theater boldly decides to mount a nudie revue. This being staid London, however, certain restraints must be observed. One of Mrs. Henderson's funniest scenes has Laura invading the offices of the stodgy Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest), where she proceeds to deflect his censor's resistance to public nudity with a pledge to keep her actresses totally immobile.
Director Frears, whose edgy films include The Grifters and Dirty Pretty Things, seems to be in a more relaxed mood here, happy to honor all the conventions of backstage comedy and willing to indulge Dench in a showcase every bit as overdecorated as her Queen Elizabeth turn in Shakespeare in Love or her gabby Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Mrs. Henderson has some dark moments, deriving from the terrors of two world wars. In its latter stages, as the Windmill becomes a haven for young soldiers, it insists on giving us a huge dose of Stiff Upper Lip. But for the most part, this is a genial Brit charmer in the manner of Calendar Girls, despite the title character's diva antics and the blunt force in some of writer Sherman's saltier exchanges.
As a celebration of theater-world eccentricity, spiced with old-fashioned English pluck, Mrs. Henderson hits all its marks, well-worn though they be, and Dench fans will once more find themselves glorying in her reckless spirit.
-- Bill Gallo