“I’m bored with widowhood”
As the aristocratic Lady Conway, Thelma Barlow’s amusing run through the options open to a rich widow of nearly 70 sets up Mrs Henderson Presents succinctly in its opening moments – Laura Henderson pricks her thumb trying embroidery as a hobby and bristles at the snobbery of the ladies who run charities for the deserving and so is left to spend money as she sees fit, alighting on the derelict Windmill Theatre which she purchases in a moment of inspiration as she passes in her car. Martin Sherman’s script is based on the true story of this woman who became an unlikely theatrical impresario and in director Stephen Frears’ hands, Judi Dench delivers a heart-warmingly cracking performance at the centre of a lovely film.
Set in the late 1930s, the story follows Laura as she and her theatre manager, Bob Hoskins’ cantankerous but inspired Vivian van Damm, set up a continuous variety revue called Revudeville and trying to keep ahead of a market full of copycats, they introduce still tableaux of female nudity into the show which becomes a roaring success. The onset of war casts a heavy shadow though and whilst the show continues, providing much needed entertainment and respite, as the bombs fall on London, the determination that the show must go on puts everyone in serious peril.
I remember liking the film when it first came out but was surprised at how much I enjoyed it second time around. It should be no surprise – I love wartime stories, especially those involving women, and naturally tales of the theatre delight, but this film manages to combine them with sensitivity and wit, and with an excellent artistic level that makes the performances within the film a real pleasure to watch. Will Young, taking on his first acting role as Bertie, and Camille O’Sullivan lead the singing of jaunty wartime ditties and Debbie Astell’s choreography for a dazzling chorus of Millerettes is a delight to behold.
But there’s a more serious edge to the film too, never ostentatiously so, but Dench never lets us forget that she is a woman ever in mourning for her son, killed in the First World War, as well as her husband, and so the vivaciousness that she now displays in seizing life by the horns, is underscored by this sense of melancholy. And the hints of stories of how others are affected by the war – van Damme’s Jewish relatives in the Netherland, lead showgirl Maureen’s connection with a young soldier – add pathos to the whole shebang.
So much to enjoy here – lovely moments from Dench such as when on finding Bertie’s inclinations, she reveals herself to be the raging fag hag she surely has to be, and later delights in shocking the censor with her frank language and discussion of degrees of nakedness that are acceptable. Nice little cameos abound including Christopher Logan’s mischievous stagehand, Samuel Barnett’s fresh-faced soldier and Sandy McDade’s bureaucrat, and the overall impact is of a marvellously charming piece of work.