Mrs Henderson Presents Review

Every couple of years or so Stephen Frears brings out a new film and each and every time it serves as a marked contrast from the last. The past ten years alone have seen him take on a live television production with big star names (Fail Safe), a Western (The Hi-Lo Country) and an Americanised Nick Hornby adaptation (High Fidelity). Meanwhile, the thematic concerns have been equally eclectic, ranging from illegal immigration (Dirty Pretty Things) to Irish Blackshirts (Liam). As such you’d have expected him to take a break sometime soon, and so he does in the form of Mrs Henderson Presents, undoubtedly the lightest offering to garnish his CV in quite some time.

The opening “inspired by true events…” disclaimer may suggest some kind of weight behind the film, but this really isn’t so. Taking place in the London of 1937, Mrs Henderson concentrates on the Windmill Theatre famed for its groundbreaking – and controversy courting – use of nude tableaux. Established by a “bored” widow as a means of occupying her time – having tried and failed at more established “hobbies” such as embroidery and sitting on committees – the theatre enjoys almost immediate success thanks to the radical ideas of its artistic director: non-stop performances, musical revues. Yet soon every other establishment in the West End is following suit and so it is only when our titular widow decides upon nudity being the way forward (as young as the “actresses” don’t move) that her “hobby” achieves its true fame.

From the animated title sequence onwards it’s clear that Mrs Henderson Presents has its tongue firmly in its cheek. And of course, any film which Judi Dench (in the lead role) as being a bit dizzy, a bit soft in the head, and Bob Hoskins (as Van Damm, the artistic director) as a well-spoken member of the bourgeoisie must surely attain a cartoon-ish edge, no matter how much dignity they bring to the roles (seemingly Dench’s calling nowadays, hence her tokenistic presence in the likes of Pride & Prejudice and Shakespeare in Love). Furthermore, the cast also finds room for one-time Pop Idol Will Young, Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest and Coronation Street’s Thelma Barlow, a line-up which challenges Frears’ career as a whole for sheer eclecticism.

Much of this makes sense, however, given that Mrs Henderson is part comedy and part backstage musical, whilst also harking back to the golden age of British music hall and thereby stirring memories of Jessie Matthews and Flanagan and Allen. Indeed, Martin Sherman’s screenplay is very much designed with this tonal balance in mind. The dialogue is intended to be rattled off and to sparkle, to inject pace into the proceedings and to rely, in part, on a Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn-alike chemistry in its two leads.

Certainly, Frears takes this onboard producing a very professional end result which is never wasteful from his perspective and gives the whole thing a very respectable polish. In fact it’s really quite BBC (who, unsurprisingly, partly financed the production), recalling especially Gilles Mackinnon’s The Last of the Blonde Bombshells from a few years back which, of course, also gave Dench a leading role. (That said, the bigger influence is likely to be the line of stripping and nudity in popular British cinema which began with The Full Monty and continued with Calendar Girls.) And yet whilst the energy and verve is there, Frears doesn’t have a complete handle on the material. Whilst Dench and Hoskins are in many ways the right choices for their respective roles, sadly they lack that vital chemistry. Meanwhile the script is lacking in areas which our director can do little about: the peripheral characters (i.e. anyone other than Dench or Hoskins) are rendered as complete ciphers; and everything appears to be more or less a background detail and nothing more, whether it be impending war, Dench’s status as a grieving widow, or indeed the nudity itself. Certainly, the attitude is intentionally cheeky and coy in this respect – and therefore not to be taken too seriously – but in avoiding the sexual politics (as well as those of Will Young’s openly gay character), something seems very much amiss.

As such we’re left with a film which ambles along nicely enough and provides, as Frears no doubt intended, some light, frothy entertaining. Yet at the same time there’s also never any perceivable reason as to why the film has been made in the first place. Ultimately, it’s all rather ineffectual and immediately forgettable.

The Disc

Mrs Henderson Presents comes in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement as we’d expect. On the whole the presentation is decidedly fine: clean, spotless and demonstrating a fine clarity. There are some soft edges at times, but then this could easily have been intentional and keyed in to the film’s overall nostalgic tone. Certainly, there are no major worries to consider. As for the soundtrack, here we find the original DD5.1 offering and again it offers no problems. Crisp, clean and clear throughout, it copes as well with the numerous musical numbers as it does the comic dialogue.

Sadly, the extras don’t live up to such quality despite their promise. Stephen Frears’ commentary is a dull affair which offers very little. The director has a habit of only speaking in small sentences, pointing out little things here and there, and as such he would have been better served by a long-form interview. Indeed, you spend more time listening to silences than you do his words.

Equally unimpressive is the featurette. Despite speaking to various original “Windmill Girls” as well as members of the cast and crew it essentially presents nothing more than the usual EPK guff. In fact, the level of sycophancy is really quite remarkable and hard to stomach – essentially it’s all just one big love-in. As for the rest of the disc, here we find a brief gallery of production stills, the original theatrical trailer and a pair of TV spots. All told, nothing to get too excited about.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:14:27

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