In the annals of nudie revues from no-sex-please Britain, Stephen Frears' Mrs. Henderson Presents falls somewhere between the rich Rabelaisian stew of The Full Monty and the initially charming but at painful length revoltingly thin broth of Calendar Girls. It's closer to the fun former than the dull latter, but doesn't fully measure up—call it a partial monty of nicely naughty entertainment.
Mrs. H is the wealthy, newly widowed Laura Henderson (Judi Dench), a real woman who was in some ways a conventional dame of her uppity class circa 1937: privileged and prejudiced, connected and inclined to feel quite entitled to be so. But she's simply not equipped to live the life of aimless shopaholic social parasitism prescribed for ladies of her ilk. She needs real work and also to shock her more priggish confreres.
Impulsively, she buys a shuttered theater and interviews a stubby, eruptive fireplug of a theater manager, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), and immediately insults him with her mildly anti-Semitic effrontery and sheer bossiness. But she admires a personality whose pugnacity answers her own, so she woos and hires the irritable little man. Her impetuous policy of round-the-clock variety shows catches on. Alas, rivals catch on, too, and their vogue fades. What to do? Mrs. H decides to go the duds-doffing route. Her theater is dubbed the Windmill, in honor of the noted ooh-la-la emporium of Paris, which is, she briskly reports, simply "filled with naked girls wearing bananas and driving the audience bananas in turn."
So Hoskinsbegins coaxing English girls to open their petals for a stab at fame. In his mind, this is a patriotic duty. Though he's jittery about the pudendum, which he terms "the Midlands," he does insist, "We must have British nipples!" His big find is Maureen (Kelly Reilly), whom he meets cute by accidentally almost running her bicycle off the road with his car. The other girls aren't excellently individuated, and it would be better if more of them registered as well as Maureen. But there's just a bracing bit of the flavorful backstage drama found in Topsy-Turvy, enough to keep you rooting for the show (and looking for Mrs. H, banned from the theater for meddling but scheming to re-enter in disguise, onstage alongside her girls—only she plans to keep her costume on).
The musical numbers are resonant with period charm, including one of my favorite tunes ever, "Goody Goody" (I think the hit 1936 Benny Goodman version with the immortal goddess Helen Ward). The girls are forced by the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest), the official government censor who tyrannized England's plays right up through the 1960s Joe Orton era, to stand stock-still and never move. He's right, the smutty-minded bastard: When the girls cease being statuesque and jiggle in motion, they lose their Venus de Milo gravitas and become rather embraceable, especially to the troops trooping in to keep warm from the Battle of Britain that rages outside.
The plot is generic and undercooked, the Van Damm–Mrs. H romance lukewarm, and the sentiment overripe. But this isn't the first time a middling script has been rescued by Frears (see interview) His leads make lovely understated music together, the American Guest absolutely scores as a minor British nobleman (which he is in real life, owing to unlikely lineage), and the kids are all right. I call for applause—and for some lad to loose a mouse onstage. (R)