February 10, 2006
Nudity in wartime
A charming, well-acted story of a trailblazing
Three idols make Mrs. Henderson Presents a charming film with lots of humor and some drama to boot. The first two are Bob Hoskins and Judy Dench and the third is the out Will Young--the winner of the first U.K. Pop Idol (upon which the popular American Idol is based). The film, inspired by true events starting in 1937, is nominated for two Oscars and four British Academy of Film and Theater Awards.
Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) has just lost her husband Robert, a leader of upper-class English society, who was stationed for many years in India during British colonialism there. Right after the funeral, she quips to her friend Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow) that she is “already bored with widowhood.”
Conway urges her to take on a hobby. Laura tries needlepoint and even joins a charity committee to aid unmarried mothers. Bored with those, she finally purchases a dilapidated theatre in London’s Soho and hires Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), a charismatic, seasoned pro to help her run the business.
They decide to offer non-stop vaudeville, a show that runs all day long, something never done in England before. A talented, young gay singer named Bertie (Will Young) leads the Millerettes, and “Revuedeville” is a huge hit. All the other theatrical rivals decide to emulate their success. Henderson’s company begins to lose money and they have to come up with a plan to outstrip (pardon the pun) the competition.
Laura’s idea is to offer female nudity on stage, a radical idea by any standards. On-stage full frontal nudity in England circa 1937 was as verboten as say, full-blown ethics in the White House, circa 2006.
But she has to convince Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest), London’s official censor, to permit the nudity. After much coaxing from his old friend Laura, Cromer gives his grudging approval, but only if the nude girls don’t move a muscle on stage. Laura convinces Cromer that if the girls are nude but still, they will be akin to nude paintings in art museums by masters like Botticelli.
The tableaux girls, a background to the luscious singing and dancing, are a sensation, and particularly popular with young soldiers--war had just been declared and Germany’s blitz of London has begun.
The theater once again faces closure, but Van Damm and Mrs. Henderson make passionate pleas to keep the Windmill open. Fortuitously, they prevail, and in the midst of awful carnage, inimitable beauty shines through as a beacon of hope and joy.
Many in the media have written off this film as fluff cinema with good acting. But the film is more subversive than the surface would reveal. In a day and age when nudity has become so gratuitous and ubiquitous on stage, on screen and via the Internet, Laura Henderson was blazing a trail. The film also raises some interesting issues about a country at war and its ability to maintain a semblance of normality and joy through the arts during times of trouble and turmoil.
The cast is top notch. As Maureen, the star chorus girl of the Millerettes, Kelly Reilly exudes poise and grace. In the second half, when she gets wrapped up in a sad affair with a young soldier, her pain and predicament are palpably poignant.
Christopher Guest (A Mighty Wind, Best in Show) is a charming foil for Laura as the stuck-up, prudish, repressed chief censor of London.
Will Young, with his gorgeous voice and boyish charm, plays Bertie with a sense of innocence and joie de vivre. Even though his gayness isn’t central to the film, Bertie being open in that day and age is an act of bravery. When Mrs. Henderson asks him to assess the breasts of the young women auditioning for the nude revue, he simply says, “I haven’t those inclinations.”
And the inimitable Laura, without missing a beat, chimes in, “How very charming.”
Bob Hoskins as Van Damm is delightful and his chemistry with Dench is a work of art. Their sparring and secret love for one another is beautiful to watch as they display perfect timing and such ease with the material. Many in the press have sniggered about Hoskins’ full Monty in a scene in the film where the young women have to strip for the first time at rehearsal. They insist that all the men in the crew, including Van Damm, also get naked as an act of solidarity.
Hoskins isn’t afraid to bare all despite his age and his hirsute, pudgy body. Kudos to him for going against the grain where the only nudity sought after is that of washboard abs and depilated bodies. In fact, it fits perfectly with one of the points being made in the film: that nudity is nothing to be ashamed of and that beauty comes from within.
The film, though, belongs to Dench, who recently received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for this role--her fifth in eight years, having won Best Supporting Actress for Shakespeare in Love. She performs with such ease and manages to create a full-bodied woman who is funny, dramatic and feisty all at once. Dench is a true master of her craft and her range is stunning and enviable.
Also nominated for her work on this film is Sandy Powell for her gorgeous costumes. She recreates the period with detail and a great sensibility for the theatrical nature of the film.
The film is written by Martin Sherman who wrote the seminal play Bent about gay men in a Nazi concentration camp, which he adapted for the screen in an underappreciated film. Here, the out Sherman is able to capture the lighter and darker moments of Mrs. Henderson’s story with fluidity and balance.
Directed by Stephen Frears, the film flows with ease and keeps the audience hooked throughout. Frears might be familiar to GLBT audiences for his work on My Beautiful Launderette, which not only launched the career of the inimitable Daniel Day Lewis, but also became a queer cult fave. It was one of the earliest films to openly deal with gay love revolving around an interracial couple. Frears also directed Prick Up Your Ears, the tragic biopic of queer playwright Joe Orton, and Dangerous Liaisons, a lush film about sexual chess games amongthe French bourgeoisie.
Laura Henderson died in 1944, a year before the war ended. She left the Windmill Theatre to Vivian Van Damm. More importantly, she left behind a legacy in the world of theatre and film, and for that we owe her a huge debt of gratitude.