Mrs. Henderson Presents
2005Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Will Young
s George Lucas could attest, every commercial movie is made to cater to a specific audience. Just as a spectacle-wearing, never-been-kissed social misfit from small-town suburbia is never too far from a Star Wars screening, so is a deep-pocketed upper-crust pseudo-socialite with a weekend getaway flat in the Swiss Alps always easily detectable at a Woody Allen show. Stephen Frears’ latest is similar, yet Mrs Henderson Presents aggrandizes the conceit of “target audience” to such extremes it risks to estrange any consensual attempt at enjoying this film from the objective outpost of an impartial observer. In doing so, it succeeds in being contemptuous without offending anyone, though perhaps too pious to be winning.
Frears is too skilled a filmmaker to let period London pass him by unexploited. Mrs Henderson is made of that very genuine British upper-crust stuff: Posh Belgravia interiors, pretentious socialites, high-flown country retreats. So, where does this leave the good natured aspirations of an otherwise well-intended star-studded parade? All over the place.
For the man who gave us Audrey Tautou as an asylum-seeking Turkish outlaw and John Cusack as an eclectic music snob and loveless loser, Mrs Henderson, a half-made up, half-true account of the formative years of veteran London nightclub The Windmill in the 1930s, may come as a numbing non-sequitur: all glitz, glamour, style, and razzle-dazzle. In a way, this is what it looks like. Mrs Henderson is innocuous enough, with charming jabs of quick-witted punctuation, a (largely) formidable cast, and chemistry aplenty. But glide anywhere beyond that point, and its imponderable texture soon melts into ornate yarn and unfortunate boredom, inexorably nicking its incarnate crux.
The titular Mrs Henderson is Laura Henderson, a recently widowed British society dame with—quite literally—more money than sense. The desolation she’s left with follow her husband’s death—which, in all fairness, amounts to little more than not having anyone to look down on—fans her “must-find-hobby” flame. But Laura Henderson doesn’t do “common.” The sudden purchase of a derelict West End theatre (theatres, as Frears would have it, were obviously sold like microwaves at Wal-Mart today) leads her to meet Vivian Van Damme (Hoskins), an unemployed theatre impresario whom she employs to manage the place. Cue to all day, non-stop entertainment featuring girls stripped in the “name of art,” and the Windmill is a rapturous success.
That the film manages to skip along as bearably as it does is thanks, primarily, to Judi Dench, in a trademark role reminiscent of Annette Bening’s go-getting pièce de résistance in Being Julia. Frears’s reliance upon on the commanding presence of his female lead becomes obvious as soon as Dench steps off screen, but seeing as this accounts for less than a fifth of his film’s running time, things aren’t as bad as they might seem.
Through multiple idiosyncrasies, insipid ballet moments and diabolical plot intercalations, Frears and scriptwriter Martin Sherman build their case on entirely passive, dry marionettes sketched with little more charisma and self-assimilating emotional gamut than hand-painted figurines in a wax museum. Will Young, as camp gay performer Bertie, has yet to prove likeable, despite attempts that span multiple studio albums and stage performances. Here, he succeeds mostly in draining all life from a character whose presence should typify passion and bite. Bob Hoskins’s performance is better, but it too often verges on spatial and temporal detachment in unpleasantly heavy dissonance with a role of such weight. He is rarely convincing, consistently upstaged by Dench during the magnetic moments the two share on screen. This is a man whose reputation was built on firm convictions, yet there is little on display to persuade us accordingly.
Unlikely character development and awkward comic timing make for a film rarely achieves its ambitions as a witty musical comedy, stranded, instead, somewhere between period confusion and farce. But the movie is highlighted with such an innocuous delivery that it seems unfair, if not cruel, to direct any more dissenting an accusation at it than a general yawn. Your parents will probably like it.
The Windmill remains alive and active today, hidden amidst glistening gay bars and dodgy peep show venues in London’s Soho, perennial sex metropolis and British gay capital par excellance. The continuous live shows still shape its menu du jour, though their content is obviously less shocking today than it was sixty years ago. And unless it’s Halloween, a soldier at the door signifies work for the suit-accepting bouncers.
The unsurprising attention the Academy devoted to Dench’s matter-of-fact performance is unlikely to morph into anything more palpable, but it’s a nice example of how a single performance can elevate a less-than-mediocre movie. Sadly, as this one proves, it’s often not enough.