You'd think a movie about female nudity might be able to do OK at the box office (then again, with Showgirls, possibly not). Mrs. Henderson Presents is a charming little comedy drama about how nude women came to be on the British stage in 1937, and true story about how a the little theater that dared to do it became an British institution.
Mrs. Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) is widowed at the age of 70s and wonders what she can do with her life. Eventually, she discovers a decrepit old theater and decides that this would be far more interesting than embroideries and fundraising, so she buys it and hires Vivian* Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to manage the theater. They form a testy relationship with Henderson asking the impossible and Van Damm trying to stick with the possible.
The Windmill Theater struggles along until Mrs. Henderson comes up with a new idea: why not include "tableaus" of famous paintings. Famous paintings of nudes, where women played the part of the women in the painting.
Van Damm thinks it's a ridiculous idea. There was a censor, the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest), whose job it is to make sure the theater remains decent. Mrs. Henderson meets with him and, in a very funny scene, comes to an agreement. Since the paintings are on public display, the tableaus can be displayed -- but only if the women in them never move.
And so the theater begins to succeed, though not without troubles along the way. There are constant fights with the Lord Chamberlain over how the woman can appear. It comes close, but Mrs. Henderson and Van Damm always find ways to keep things going.
I don't have to say that Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins are excellent; neither is capable of even a mediocre performance. Dench's Henderson is a woman who knows what she wants, and who can find an answer to anything, and she handles it with great wit and depth. The scene where she reveals why she was so intent on showing the tableaus is quite touching.
Hoskins is bristly and irritated by Henderson's requests, but does show a nice respect for his boss. And Christopher Guest is as funny as he's ever been as the Lord Chamberlain, a man so repressed he cannot discuss the issues at hand with Mrs. Henderson.
Stephen Frears has made a bunch of movies that were great but forgotten; I'll be talking about a few of those soon. He was hired on after the movie was cast, but did a fine job here.
And there really was a Windmill Theater. The tableaus were only a small portion of each show, which was designed like a vaudeville show, with a series of acts all through the day (it ran all day), but they were what made the show popular (including with US GIs in London during World War II).
The movie didn't do particularly well in the box office, but got a couple of Oscar nominations. After that, it vanished away. But pick up the DVD and prepare to be entertained.
*Often a male name in the UK, as my hero Vivian Stanshall attests.