For a people with a reputation for being stuffy about sex, the British keep proving that they're far ahead of us when it comes to infusing "adult" material with tenderness and humor. Grab an eyeful of the saucy period piece Mrs. Henderson Presents, a bit of theatrical history that relies on recurrent full-frontal nudity but which you can still take your mom and dad to. (Let's see Atom Egoyan do that.)
In the Blighty of the 1930s, filthy-rich Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) staves off new-widow boredom by opening a theater. Its innovative program of 'round-the-clock "revuedeville" routines proves wildly popular so much so that rampant competition soon makes her once-novel operation merely one among many. To preserve her market standing, she hits on the idea of peppering the stage tableaux with chorus girls who will agree to perform absolutely starkers. And she's wily and well-connected enough to get the authorities to allow it as long as the ladies in question remain stock-still while the clothed singers and dancers cavort. Movement? Why, that would be titillation.
Dench's Henderson is one of those fabulously entertaining old broads whose money emboldens her to say anything she wants at any time. You hang on her every stinging word, even before she starts sparring with theater manager Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins, toning down his trademark bluster to reveal he can also play one heck of a kindhearted backstage father figure). But what goes on in full view of the paying audiences is just as joyous. The musical routines all rate a standing "O," and not just because of those statuesque bare bods. Standards like "Goody Goody" get an energetic rendering that's too passionate for kitsch (and which makes the Sony soundtrack CD well worth owning).
It's not as easy to embrace the movie's episodic structure, which raises and resolves conflicts so perfunctorily that you start to wonder what this picture is about, anyway. Though the intrusion of World War II at first seems particularly tangential, it also imbues the film with a patriotism that puts its show-biz shenanigans into their proper context. As Mrs. Henderson's "Babies of the Blitz" keep performing while Hitler's bombs rain down around their heads, the movie becomes heartfelt testimony to the English propensity for meeting hardship with a stiff upper lip. And anything else that goes stiff along the way is free of charge, gents.
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