Here are four words I never thought I'd see in the same sentence: "Bob Hoskins" and "frontal nudity." The actor goes Full Monty, though, in the latest from Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, Dirty Pretty Things). Hoskins plays Vivian Van Damm, a stage manager who coaxes the clothes off the cast of Britain's first nude revue in late 1930s London by disrobing right along with it during an early rehearsal. He does this at the behest of a recently widowed aristocrat who purchases and renovates a West End theater so she'll have something to do with her free time. Judi Dench costars as Laura Henderson, the real-life founder of Soho's legendary Windmill Theatre.
At the start of the film, Mrs. Henderson has just laid Mr. Henderson to rest. She quickly grows "bored with widowhood." Serving on society committees proves tedious; needlecraft, tedious and frequently painful. One day she spots a run-down building from the back of her Rolls Royce and, on a whim, decides to buy it. She hasn't a clue what to do with it, beyond a vague notion of putting on musical revues. Luckily, a close friend who has grown wise in the ways of widowhood helps her hook up with just the man to run the show.
Mrs. Henderson Presents does not succeed on the basis of surprising plot developments and unexpected twists of character. The movie simply runs on charm. Many of its conventions are familiar, but the production's high spirits and style eclipse that familiarity.
Dench and Hoskins, for example, appear to be incompatible and constantly at odds over how the Windmill should be run. The truth, every viewer will pick up instantly, is that they share an unspoken attraction. The one scene in which the regal woman momentarily loses her composure is well into their relationship, when Van Damm introduces his employer to the wife she did not realize he has. The discovery proves so devastating that she responds with uncharacteristic incivility. She has all the money and influence in the world, but can't have the man for whom she pines. For a fleeting, illuminating instant she's a spoiled little girl.
She gets what she wants from other men, though, thanks to her position in society and her genial deviousness. When the Windmill is on the brink of insolvency, Henderson concludes the solution is: "Naked girls, don't you think?" Prior to that point, the theater had put on traditional vaudeville, with song-and-dance numbers, jugglers and assorted comic acts. Its single innovation had been to offer a non-stop revue all day and evening, where other venues put on just one or two shows a day. The formula proved so successful that every other theater soon copied it, and the Windmill needed a new gimmick.
Christopher Guest costars as the Lord Chamberlain, a stuffy, upper-class twit with the authority to give a red or green light to the introduction of female nudity to the London stage. Laura Henderson has known him since he was a little boy, calls him "Tommy" to remind him of that, and persuades him to allow her to proceed by plying him with fine wine and brie. Her masterstroke: The female performers won't move. They'll pose in "artistic tableaux," becoming the flesh-and-blood equivalents of paintings hanging in the National Gallery.
She gets her way, and the Windmill's new revue is an instant hit. As Hitler's war machine grinds ever closer to the city, young soldiers who will soon to be sent to face it occupy an increasing number of the seats. In a touching scene toward the end of the film, we learn this unlikely impresario's secret motivation: Her son died at 21 in the previous war. Going through his things afterward, Henderson found a "French postcard" hidden away and realized that he probably went to his grave without ever having seen a real woman unclothed. This seemed to her a very sad thing, so, near the end of her own life, she determined to spare as many young men as possible the same fate.
Though Mrs. Henderson Presents is less than timeless cinema, it is nevertheless a perfectly respectable addition to the tradition of big-screen showbiz sagas. The Windmill's young cast is spunky and likable. The musical numbers are presented with flair. The art direction is of a high order, and the script by Martin Sherman does not want for sparkling repartee, particularly between Hoskins and Dench. This is their film, after all, and though their characters' relationship has more than a little in common with those of other on-screen odd couples, the seasoned performers succeed in bringing it to feisty and engaging life.
"You are a very irritating woman, but I wouldn't have missed this for the world," Van Damm tells Henderson as they share a dance. "I feel quite the same, even though you are a very irritating man," she replies with a smile. Watching the pair irritate each other for 103 minutes proves a jolly good show indeed -- one you would do well not to miss.