Movie Review
"Mrs. Henderson Presents"
by Bill Gallagher

There was a controversy—with a capital C—some years ago about whether soft-core porn should be sold to our troops on military bases. I was hosting a radio talk show at the time and recall vividly the emotions stirred by this provocative question. I suspect it was a bit of a red herring. The idea of ridding the Post Exchange of Playboy magazine was a “non-starter” put forth by well-meaning but misguided moralists.

At least that’s what current and former members of the military told me. They found the idea laughable at best and dangerous at worst. “But,” objected those backing the ban (mostly women, by the way) “men look at that stuff and then make life miserable for their wives.”

And there things stood. An impasse. Issue unresolved. But I would guess that you can still pick up magazines full of pictures of naked women in alluring poses at the local PX.

What brings this one-day 90s radio debate back to mind is the new movie from British director Stephen Frears, “Mrs. Henderson Presents.” Mrs. Henderson (Judi Dench) is a fabulously wealthy widow in 1937 who copes with boredom after her husband’s death by buying and restoring a West End theater in London called The Windmill.

She hooks up with producer/showman Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to bring vaudeville values to a London venue. In short order, The Windmill becomes a smashing success. At least until other theater owners catch on and competition forces the widow and the impresario to adapt. This is when Mrs. Henderson reveals her real motive in refurbishing The Windmill. “Let’s have naked girls,” she chirps.

At that time in Britain, nude women had never been seen on the legitimate stage. That sort of thing may have been fine for the French, but the Lord Chancellor (Christopher Guest) would never allow it on English stages. But Mrs. Henderson goes to work on him and successfully makes the case that nude women on the stage would be no different from paintings of nude women in museums. Of course, that means the nudes in her revue would have to stand perfectly still.

With that condition, permission is granted and we’ve got the story of England’s first live stage show featuring women who are undressed. Sounds like a flimsy premise for a feature-length movie, you may think. You are correct. So the story is padded with Depression-era significance and wartime drama. Were it not for the performances of Dench (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Mrs. Brown” and the Bond movies as M) and Hoskins (“Mona Lisa,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) that padding may not have been adequate to provide entertainment. But these two British troopers make it work as they go at each other. She’s the feisty dowager who can get a laugh with lines such as, “I’d rather drink ink,” and, “We must have British nipples.” He’s the tough outsider (a Jew from Holland) who puts her in her place. She’s infuriated and infatuated with Van Damm.

As for the connection between the controversy over selling porn mags at the PX and “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” well here comes a spoiler: Mrs. Henderson’s motivation all along in restoring The Windmill is to give the troops an opportunity to see live naked women. She’s seen twice visiting her son’s grave in northern France where he died in World War I. Seen, but not heard. Lush music plays while she sits in front of his grave. Her lips are moving, but she’s clearly not praying. Later, in a speech to soldiers that provides the movie’s climax, we find out what that was all about. Standing amidst the rubble of the latest bombing she shares the story of how her son fell to poison gas and had a “French post card” in his pocket. It bore the image of a scantily clad woman. This, she says, was as close as he came to seeing a woman naked before he died for freedom and, “That’s not right!”

Well, that pronouncement makes her quite popular with the troops gathered outside the theater, which had been shut down by British authorities. They didn’t shut it down because of the nudity, but because London was being bombed by the Luftwaffe, and a group of soldiers gathered in a theater didn’t seem like a good idea. But that’s just a technicality. The point is that if we’re sending these boys off to fight, and perhaps die, to defend democracy, how can we deny them the pleasures of seeing naked women? Even naked women standing perfectly still on stage.

The same argument was applied on my talk show about making Playboy available on military bases. Can anyone really make a convincing argument that those who serve shouldn’t be allowed to see some pornography? “Mrs. Henderson Presents” makes the point pretty well while throwing at the audience Hoskins channeling Winston Churchill, bombing of London montages, and full frontal male and female nudity.

Stephen Frears has given us a wonderful variety of films—from “High Fidelity,” which brought Jack Black to the movies, to “My Beautiful Launderette,” which did the same for Daniel Day- Lewis, to “The Grifters,” which gave us John Cusack’s best role at that point, and “The Van” and “The Snapper” two fantastic adaptations of Roddy Doyle’s winning novels of working-class Dubliners. “Mrs. Henderson Presents” isn’t his best work, not even close, but he’s had some fun with a wartime “message” movie that could easily have turned into a treacly melodrama.

In Lieu of a “Best of 2005” Movie List

If you’re a fan of movies, by now you’ve probably seen more than one of these ubiquitous lists. This is not one of them. I haven’t seen every movie released last year, so how could I possibly judge which movies were the best?

Instead, I’d like to let you in on one of the hazards of writing movie reviews for a monthly magazine: I often end up reviewing movies that are not very good. The problem is that due to the lead time before publication I have to pick and choose those movies that are available for viewing weeks before the review actually runs. That means, to borrow a bowling expression, “strikes and gutters” in the words of Jeff Lebowski. Over the past year in BrainstormNW there have been some “strikes:” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Capote,” “Cinderella Man,” and “The Upside of Anger.” These weren’t all great movies, but they had their merits. There were, unfortunately, also some “gutters:” “Proof,” “The Interpreter” and “Bad News Bears.” That I used an entire column to review this last one still sticks in my craw. But I think a lot of the director, Richard Linklater, and figured with Billy Bob Thornton redoing the role of Coach Buttermaker, “How bad could it be?” Pretty bad. I apologize for using space in this fine magazine for that review.

While there is some value for readers in knowing which movies not to see, despite what you might think, it’s more fun to write about movies I’ve enjoyed than those I’ve barely tolerated. So, here are the movies I wish I had been able to review: “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang,” “Millions,” “Downfall,” “The Constant Gardener,” “The Squid and the Whale,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” and yes, “King Kong.”

Bill Gallagher is the News Director at AM 860 KPAM – the Talk Station and writes the monthly Movie Review column for BrainstormNW.

BrainstormNW - February 2006

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