Mrs. Henderson Presents

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

                Judi Denchís timing is so extraordinary that we listen carefully for fear of missing something -some half swallowed phrase that catches the moment perfectly.  This makes it tough for any other actor to hold the screen when sheís on, but in ďMrs. Henderson Presents,Ē Bob Hoskins matches her jab for jab.  One or the other of them holds the movie together at all times.  Whenever they are elsewhere, it sags. 

                In 1937 with war rushing toward England, Mrs. Laura Henderson (Judi Dench), a widow laden with money and time, is looking for something to do.  The fact that what she did is true adds backbone to the film.  On a whim Laura buys the decrepit old Windmill Theater, renovates it, and decides to mount reviews as wartime distraction, first for the general public, then for British soldiers.  Writer Martin Sherman has written some terrific lines for Hoskins and Dench, but there just isnít much meat on the bones of this story.  Then again, perhaps there is no need for meat.

                Mrs. Henderson is consistently rude to her theater manager, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), firing off insults about his Jewishness that she supposes to be O.K. because they carry her implied affection and respect.  To bring success to the mediocre theater venture, Mrs. Henderson wins the approval of the stuffy Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest) to mount nude revues.  The Lordís command:  The girls must not move a muscle, and they donít.  Thatís good for one laugh, but the show on the stage of the Windmill, to which the movie returns repeatedly, is quite dull as is a sub-plot engineered by Mrs. Henderson. 

                That being the case, we in the audience have no choice but to wait for the reappearance of Hoskins and Dench who will surely make us laugh.  There is, beneath the laughter, the unspoken truth that Mrs. Henderson is not only bored, but sad, that Mr. Van Damm is badly in need of the job that forces him to endure the insults of his theater owner, and that the eventual success of their venture is due to war.  The two fine actors do return repeatedly, armed with zingers that become our reward.  They are masters of tart philosophy born of experience and age.

                Bob Hoskins and Judi Dench can play anything along the scale from tragedy to comedy and here each of them injects notes of seriousness into the verbal dance between two tart tongued Brits.  The result is a kind of confusion of mood.   But if the anticipation of Judi Denchís sublime delivery is enough for you, you may well love this sometimes uneven movie.  This now mythic actress has never looked better than she does as the sophisticated Mrs. Henderson and she shows us yet again how she relishes her art.  There is no question that she could have cheered the troops during World War II, no question that she can cheer the rest of us right now in 2005.


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