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Frilly comedy bares all, mildly entertains

For the Daily
Published February 8, 2006

While tactfully bypassing the potential trauma of a disrobed Judi Dench, "Mrs. Henderson Presents" is a tasteful take on nudity in high society, interjecting welcome fluffiness into the otherwise-dismal World War II era.

The film's namesake (Judi Dench, "Pride & Prejudice," who recently earned an Oscar nod for her role) is a not-so-mournful widow searching for a hobby to complement her newly single life. She stumbles upon the rundown Windmill Theatre and hires astute gentleman Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins, "Beyond the Sea") to transform it into a stage for continuous musicals, the likes of which were previously unheard of in European society.

A clever publicity stunt - the inclusion of nude female actors into the show - comes as a sudden revelation to Mrs. Henderson, though she offers a flimsy rationale for it later. Whatever the case, "Revudeville" becomes a hit with hormone-driven soldiers while skillfully providing a backdrop for the film's unexpected relationships.

The catch: The theater is forbidden from having naked bits running amuck on the stage and must instead find ways to showcase them "artistically," meaning without movement. Aside from the obligatory scene involving old men and their titter-inducing willies, the British filmmakers handle nudity well, and the resulting musical numbers are both charming and charismatic. The songs effortlessly smooth the transitions from stage to reality with an infectious beat.

Despite the profligate nudity, the film's unusual relationships are at its core. As an immature socialite, Mrs. Henderson is a formidable match for the gruff Mr. Van Damm. While her wit is best appreciated by an older audience, their cheeky interactions are reminiscent of third-grade antics without the hairpulling, which is fortunate for the aging Dench.

Their name-calling lends credence to the scene where Mr. Van Damm strands Mrs. Henderson atop a high cabinet in his office with no way down. It's absurd, yes, but also strangely fitting for a woman who delights in shocking court officials by calling a woman's "midlands" by their less euphemistic name.

Another novel relationship in the film originally appears to be a love story between a beautiful actress, Maureen (Kelly Reilly, "Pride & Prejudice"), and a sweet-faced soldier. But appearances prove deceiving when he sleeps with her and then announces he has a girlfriend. The audience will get a dark satisfaction from perfect Maureen's decidedly imperfect ending.

While the film connects with the ongoing war in some respects, its main focus (as well as "Revudeville" itself) is entertainment. The use of archival footage of the London bombings seems too contrived and out of sync. The effect is jarring in an otherwise lighthearted film that shows pleasure as a universal and transcendent human need, even in the dreariest moments of war.

Mrs. Henderson Presents
At the Showcase
The Weinstein Company

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars