A bored rich widow opens London’s first topless revue in Stephen Frears’ entertaining, but flat, Mrs. Henderson Presents.
British director Stephen Frears’s films have always been compelling and diverse. From his manipulative powerhouse period drama Dangerous Liasons in 1988, to the lively and entertaining comedy High Fidelity in 2000, to 2003’s gritty and brilliant Dirty Pretty Things set in London’s underbelly, Frears’ films are always top notch. Which is why we’re rather disappointed with his latest film Mrs. Henderson Presents, based on the life of Laura Henderson, a real-life widow who once used her formidable wealth and societal clout during the war years to buy London’s Windmill Theatre, which she later turned into a topless revue. While the film is solid and entertaining, featuring a fantastic cast that includes an Oscar-nominated Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) in the title role, Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) and upcoming actress Kelly Reilly (The Libertine), Presents lacks the spark of Frears’s earlier films, and its proceedings are surprisingly flat and sappy, especially in the second half.
The film begins well enough in 1937 at a funeral in England. Laura Henderson (Dench) is a recently widowed, wealthy and snobbish woman who decides to buy the Windmill, a rundown theater, and hires an equally headstrong theater manager Vivian Van Damm (Hoskins) to put on a musical revue in it. The Windmill was an initial success, but after attendance falls, Mrs. Henderson hits upon the surefire solution of having the women in her shows appear naked. “That kind of thing isn’t done here,” exclaims a shocked Van Damm. Official censor Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest, Best in Show) is equally appalled by the idea and will not permit it.
But after some sweet talk and friendly persuasions, Mrs. Henderson gets Lord Cromer to agree to her outrageous show, and true enough, the Windmill, later dubbed the Revuedeville, is a hit again. The film later focuses on the Revuedeville during World War II, and how the war affects the revue’s dancers and singers—in particular pretty blonde Maureen (Reilly) and flamboyant singer Bertie (pop star Will Young). The film’s second half sags because it turns deliriously melodramatic, with young love and secret pasts at the center of all its theatrics.
Even if the film becomes increasingly tiresome, the talented cast manages to buoy things along. Judi Dench is always excellent and commanding, as she tackles her role here with particular relish and bite, especially in her head-on scenes with the equally accomplished Bob Hoskins. The two provide the best scenes in the film, and Hoskins is also game enough to strip for the film (the nerve!). Beautiful Kelly Reilly is also strong as pretty and tortured dancer Maureen, and the reliable Christopher Guest always lends competent support.
Hardcore Stephen Frears followers might not like this film, but fans of naked bodies and half-baked musical numbers should find this one a guilty pleasure. We didn’t.

Terry Ong
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Opening Date: 
Thursday, February 23, 2006
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