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Presenting Mrs Henderson

Posted at 11:51 AM on February 20, 2006 by Euan Kerr (5 Comments)

I took in "Mrs Henderson Presents" over the weekend, and it made me despair just a little for the state of British film.

It's a perfectly fine flick. ("Delicious!" as Dame Judi Dench would no doubt say as the title character.) Dame Judi and Bob Hoskins make a marvelous acid-tongued pair of English eccentrics who set up a nude review at a run-down London theater and find themselves riding a wild wave of success.

I have always enjoyed Bob Hoskins' work. I first remember seeing him in "On the Move," a literacy series the BBC ran in 1978 for adults who were having problems reading. They were 10 minute shows that I seem to remember ran nightly for a couple of weeks. Hoskins was amazing, playing a middle-aged guy who was methodically working through picking up on a skill he'd never learned, with a mixture of the dignity, and humor (mixed with the occasional but apt flash of anger.) He brings much the same combination to theater manager Vivian Van Damm in "Mrs Henderson," just with a little more polish.

Judi Dench is up for the Best Actress Oscar for her role, although she does seem to be just playing a variant on a role she's played a dozen times before of the prickly English aristo, who somehow ploughs through life primarily by refusing to acknowledge the existence of obstacles.

Perhaps the best performance is Christopher Guest as the British Lord Chamberlain who was the de facto censor of London Theater. He plays the role with a mildly pained acknowledgement that he knows he will be unable to prevent Mrs Henderson's plans for a nude show, but somehow comes up with a way of describing it as art. Guest's stiff upper lip never wavers until the very end, and he is a delight in his utter reserve.

So why the despair? It just seems that too many British films recently have fallen into the "Full Monty" rut. "The Full Monty" is a great film, but since its success there's been a succession of British films where people acing a problem somehow bust through by shedding their clothes and finding redemption. It worked for the unemployed lads who became strippers in "Monty" and it worked a little less in "Calendar Girls" and now frankly I see little or no redemption for "Mrs Henderson." Mrs Henderson is a bored wealthy widow who buys a theater as a hobby. She has her reasons for starting a strip show, but when it's revealed it seems more than a little strange. It doesn't really justify what she has wrought as a result.

Redemption takes a little more work than getting the courage to appear naked in public. There's just not a lot of story to "Mrs Henderson Presents." That's disappointing given it's directed by Stephen Frears, he of such amazing films as "Dirty Pretty Things," "High Fidelity," and "My Beautiful Laundrette" amongst many others.

Comments (5)

I too fear for the British film industry.
I don't know why they couldn't follow the American example & solve their problems by shooting one another.

I don't know that the film was about "redemption" I also don't know what Mrs. Henderson "has wrought" as a result of her actions. Uhhh, maybe freedom? Post-war prosperity?

I can only speculate that if the Brits had decided to solve their problems by shedding their clothes, they would have done much better in the Suez incident. But it was not to be.

Perhaps the British comedies reached these shores because the Yanks have Oh-So-Serious Culture Wars that prevent a gentle laugh over a little spice.
Perhaps Americans would benefit from a little more pluck.

I suppose that if Frears became "overwrought" over the male/female gaze of all those Yanks in Mrs. Henderson, he could always make a "moral uplift" film that involved --well, I admit it-- the coincidences in "Crash" are beyond parody.

Posted by skip | February 20, 2006 2:34 PM

Thanks Skip. I'm not sure I disagree with you on many of your points. What I'm more concerned about is the way some British film makers are shedding their clothes right into a formulaic rut. Of course, it's probably now just a matter of time before there is the "Mrs Henderson Presents" Broadway show.

Posted by Euan Kerr | February 20, 2006 4:10 PM

I saw "Mrs. Henderson Presents" last night. Does it represent British film as a whole, as Mr. Kerr laments. Really?!

What makes a "British" film? I don't know about the whole British film industry, but I've seen some great movies (that I guess are British) since The Full Monty. Dirty Pretty Things already mentioned, but there's many more. Just off the top of my head: Croupier, Dear Frankie, Felicia's Journey (or is that Canadian?), I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, Bright Young Things, Wallace & Gromit, Young Adam, and for emphasis, Vera Drake, Vera Drake, Vera Drake.

Don't they represent British film at least as much as Full Monty, Calendar Girls & Mrs. Henderson do?

I just contributed to MPR last week and came across this blog. Love it, so far. A lot of posts are over my head or beyond me, but I'll keep checking it out. The Movie Maven is one of the most interesting voices on MPR.

Posted by Adam McFarlane | February 21, 2006 3:53 PM

Thanks Adam,

Perhaps I was overly dramatic in using the word "despair." And maybe I should have said 'the state of British cinema as seen in the US.' I've seen most of the films you list and you are right that they represent a more complete picture of British cinema at present. I'd add "Closer" and "Layer Cake" too.

The problem is you run that list by most movie-goers here and the only names that will draw a spark of recognition will be "Monty," "Gromit," and maybe "Mrs Henderson." It just troubles me that the best known film products from home seem to involve strippers, wizards and were-rabbits in some combination or other.

Hmmm.... Now if we could combine all three.... now THAT would be a film to see!

Posted by Euan Kerr | February 21, 2006 7:20 PM

"...[T]he best known film products from home seem to involve strippers, wizards and were-rabbits in some combination or other.
Hmmm.... Now if we could combine all three.... now THAT would be a film to see!"

And Jane Austin would complete the Powerball.

Posted by skip | February 24, 2006 12:58 AM

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