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Published November 25th, 2005 | by Michelle Thomas

Mrs Henderson Presents Review

Classification: TBC Director: Stephen Frears Rating: 4/5

Judi Dench is A National Treasure and should be protected in some way, a preservation order or one of those little fences that stop deer eating young trees. Like Morgan Freeman, she brings with her an air of authority– watching her you relax, knowing that you’re going to be in good hands.

Mrs Henderson Presents is the semi-true story of Laura Henderson (Dench). A wealthy widow, Mrs Henderson has lived a pampered life, but now that her husband is dead, she needs something to do. A friend suggests collecting diamonds, or taking a lover, but Mrs Henderson goes one better – she buys a derelict old theatre in Soho, and sets about refurbishing it. As she doesn’t know anything about running a theatre, she hires Vivian Van Damm (Hoskins) to do it for her.

Van Damm is an old pro, and he suggests running continuous revues as a mark of difference. It works, and the Windmill’s ‘Revuedeville’ is initially a huge success. However, imitiation being the sincerest form of flattery and all that, other theatres soon follow suit, and in the search for innovation Mrs Henderson suggests they try nudes on stage. All in the best possible taste, of course… and her society connections help her to pull it off. The tableaux are a sensation and, as war approaches, also something of a comfort for the young troops preparing for battle on the western front.

But with bombs falling on London, the government threatens to close the theatre, and Mrs Henderson must fight tooth and nail to keep her precious theatre open.

A light and sunny film, Mrs Henderson Presents begins with a death. Judi Dench is all stiff upper lip and graciousness at the funeral and can only give vent to her grief in the most private of places – she rows out into the middle of a river and howls, only to stop as a rowing crew go past. This is the world of Mrs Henderson. A world where private feelings are private and even very old friends and colleagues call each other by title and surname. Mrs Henderson herself gets away with not doing a lot of these things because she is rich and well-connected, but she knows that breaking down at her husband’s funeral is simply not done.

There’s a surprising amount of death in the film altogether, set as it is in the early days of the Second World War, and haunted by the memories of the first. Mrs Henderson only wants to entertain, to make people happy, but in her eagerness to do so she sometimes causes a great deal of pain. When she tries to be a mother to the girls at the theatre, especially Maureen (Reilly), it goes disastrously wrong. Hoskins’ Van Damm is actually much closer to the girls, partly because he’s there with them, day in and day out, and it’s he who really keeps them going. The film pays tribute to the British spirit of the blitz. The intrepid Mrs H is always up on the rooftops during some of the most severe raids, and its she who is determined that the theatre should never be closed.

But its also very funny, sweet and charming, with Dench and Hoskins clearly enjoying themselves hugely. Always a pleasure to watch, they allow the young cast their moments in the spotlight, and Kelly Reilly in particular shines.

It’s a good story, well told and well acted, and the kind of film, like Calendar Girls, that you could enjoy with your gran. Will Young has a small part, but don’t let that put you off – he mostly sings and dances in true music hall style while Judi and Bob – and Kelly Reilly – run off with the acting honours.

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