Nudity? In England?
From 1932 to 1964, London's Windmill Theatre (later renamed the "Windmill Club") presented Revudeville—non-stop musical variety entertainment from 2:30 p.m. until 11 p.m—though it might better have been called Renudeville. After an initial year of straight American-style vaudeville acts flopped, it occurred to owner Mrs. Laura Henderson that something daring might save the West End theatre. Or, as the tag line for the film version proclaims, "The show must go on, but the clothes must come off."
It's only coincidental that the club bore the same windmill name and emblem as Paris's famed Moulin Rouge nude revue, because Henderson named it after the street it was on—Great Windmill Street. But through the Thirties and Forties, the Windmill was just as popular as the naughty Paris landmark, especially for servicemen. The theatre skirted London's anti-nudity statutes by exploiting a loophole and presenting nudes as "living statues" in frozen tableaux. No jiggle? No niggle.
The film spans 1937-1942, with the screenwriters taking the liberty of shifting the founding date forward a bit to compress time. Judi Dench earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance as the recently widowed Mrs. Henderson. She has a lot of fun with the irreverent role, which gives her the chance to be politely acerbic and wryly sarcastic. It doesn't take long for the audience to realize that Mrs. Henderson isn't the typical widow of a British diplomat. Arriving an hour-and-a-half late at the wake for her husband that's being held at her own house, Mrs. Henderson whispers to her confidante, Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow), "I'm bored with widowhood." And when her friend suggests that she may have to take up a hobby, like weaving, she quips, "I'd rather drink ink." She revels in the indelicate, as when she tries working on the board of a charity and everyone is told that a plan to provide housing for unwed mothers is meeting with opposition and will have to be scrapped. With perfect deadpan she says, "But I've told all my friends I was building homes for future bastards." Later, after she buys and rehabs the dilapidated theatre on a whim and listens to her new manager, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), talk about what he'd like to see onstage, she remarks, "I have no idea what you're going on about, but I do admire passion."
Hoskins isn't as dead-on as the manager, but that may be because of the way his part was written. There are a few wonderful exchanges between Mrs. Henderson and him, but Van Damm seems a character on the fence who's true nature isn't as evident as his boss's. Sometimes he appears silent when we wish him to bluster, while other times we want the same sense of his moral state as we get, again, with Mrs. Henderson. Whether it's the lines or what Hoskins brought to the table, the character just doesn't have the same pizzazz as Dench's. Neither, for that matter, does Van Damm's gay right-hand man, Bertie (Will Young) or the girl they run into by literal accident who becomes the lead Windmill Girl, Maureen (Kelly Reilly). Both characters seem as if they could have been given more plot-related substance. But writer Martin Sherman ("Radio Days") and director Stephen Frears ("High Fidelity," "Dangerous Liaisons") obviously opted to make this Dench's show.
"Mrs. Henderson Presents" is an entertaining period romp that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design. Designer Sandy Powell seems to have had just as much fun with this one as Dench, creating stage and high society gowns and garments that were based on and inspired by the period. There's one scene, though, that didn't require a whole lot of costume design imagination. When the Windmill Girls balk at having to strip down in front of the men who work at the theatre, it soon becomes a Woodstock-style free-for-all that includes full body frontal nudity for both genders—though the females are more discreet. Earlier, when Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest) had asked how they would manage to make the living statues work when the female pudenda is so obvious, Mrs. Henderson had him coughing up his tea when she shot back, "We'll get a barber."
The film really doesn't cover all that much narrative ground, and yet it's still entertaining. Rated R for nudity and brief language, "Mrs. Henderson Presents" plays a lot like "Driving Miss Daisy," where an older firebrand of a woman is thrown into a situation where she has to interact on a daily basis with a younger and more reserved man who's in her employ. There are really no significant sideplots to add complexity—just a single moment where it looks as if the theatre must close down during World War II like all the others—until Mrs. Henderson argues that it provides a service for the servicemen. In truth, it was the only theatre to stay open during the bombings, with staff and performers often staying overnight at the theatre because of the danger of traveling. But that's the extent of the straightforward narrative. What's here is done very well, but you can't escape the feeling that a little complexity might have enriched the film even more.
Video: "Mrs. Henderson Presents" has decent picture quality, though there's a slight graininess throughout—perhaps artificially added for period flavor. Still, the colors are vivid and low-light and night scenes still have good sharpness and definition. What's fun and worthy of mention is the opening mixed media montage that accompanies the overture and title credits. It really sets the stage for a fun period film. The aspect ratio is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 televisions.
Audio: The English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is great, with ambient sounds filling the room the way the performers fill out their costumes . . . okay, bad example. But it's still a robust sound, with subtitles in English (closed captions) and Spanish.
Extras: The making-of feature introduces us to many of the real Windmill Girls, who talk about what it was like to perform in the nude in England at a time when things like that just weren't done. There are current interviews with the original "girls," as well as historical photos. One of the most interesting segments comes when Eleanor Fazan talks about the choreographing, with 600 dancers auditioning and 10 finally making the last cut. Like the film itself, you walk away feeling that the documentary, however good it is (and it is good, could have been more substantial.
Frears' commentary is awfully droll and very low-key, with long pauses without remarks, much less anything remarkable. Much of the time he'll say things like "I like this shot. It's like the opening of 'Unforgiven,' Clint Eastwood's film," without going into detail about what exactly he likes about it, how it's set up, or how it pays homage to "Unforgiven."
Bottom Line: Like the original patrons of the Windmill Theatre, there will be a number of viewers who are curious to see "Mrs. Henderson Presents" mostly because of the nudity. But Judi Dench is the real treat in this fun period piece, which captures a brief bit of naughtiness that sustained Londoners during the years of World War II. The Windmill Girls are just window dressing.