Cinema Signal:

British Theatre between the Wars, 1918-1939
by Clive Barker

. "Mrs. Henderson Presents"

Director Stephen Frear's idea of entertainment here is a pileup of period glamour, the world of the filthy rich, and the classy application of their money. So his central figure is super wealthy widow Laura Henderson buying a stage on the west end of London before World War II, refurbishing it, naming it the "Windmill Theatre" and hiring famed Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) as its manager.

From the outset, there's a sharp competition between the two, marked by ever being at each other's throat. As a condition of his employment, he lays down the law to his theatre entrepreneur that he, and only he, has control over creative decisions. She may visit and check the books. The productions, their casting and concepts, are all within his sphere of responsibility. Her opinions about casting and other production matters are not welcome, not invited. Reluctantly, recognizing the need to give him his artistic freedom, she accepts.

But she manages to suggest a show that no one in the theatre districts of London is doing: nudity as art onstage. This, she has to clear with the home secretary, a friend and ally of her dead husband, who she manages to lobby successfully when she assures him the nudes will not move any more than a painting by Renoir might.

The situation between owner and manager also doesn't preclude Mrs. Henderson holding a fascination and respect for her manager and fantasizing a growing emotional bond. The imagined tension between them is foreclosed when, years into productions, he brings his wife to the theatre and introduces her to Mrs. Henderson.

She is shocked, feeling a betrayal, and huffs off in a tantrum. But, of course, he never gave her any inclination of encouragement to think their relationship was anything but professional and, for the most part, abrasive. Still, she takes it with difficulty, and swears never to step foot in the theatre again. This changes with the advent of World War II and Nazi planes bombing the city. The Windmill and its nude shows becomes a refuge for servicemen and an underground shelter for the cast.

Without the central relationship energizing the dramatic possibilities of the scenario, Frears can only generate some form of engagement with a succession of subplots, mostly involving the showgirls and the fate of the theatre. But, subplots subbing for a story line is an effort with little payoff.

The acting is all good, and the visual recreation of the period, in production design, wardrobe, hairstyling and photography, are the main virtues of a vehicle clearly aimed to nourish the star career of a fine, aging actress. Judi Dench's career on this level may well be supported by a similarly aging demographic audience, but for the mainstream and the obvious attempt at award recognition, she'd be better served with her smash appearances as a key supporting character. Her splendid Queen Elizabeth in "Shakespeare in Love" quickly comes to mind, as does her stong turns in the James Bond series ("Die Another Day").

The semi-pseudo romantic lead idea is a flabby surrogate for dramatic design, however posh and classy the accoutrements and stately presence of its players. This vehicle of off-center elegance and effete stylishness doesn't pass as drama, which is all the more disappointing from the director of such singular gems of hard observation as "Dirty Pretty Things", the estimable "The Grifters" and "The Hi-Lo Country." Of course, everyone has his foibles. This one belongs alongside the equally flabby "The Deal."

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Kelly Reilly and Judi Dench
Nude actress and theatre owner sipping tea and comparing notes
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