Film Review: Mrs. Henderson Presents

The Inadequacies of Pop Idol

(originally published 29/11/05 on Entertainmentwise.com)

1937. The storm clouds are gathering and all that. Judi Dench gets unsteadily out of the car after her husband’s funeral and goes for a quiet row on the lake. Clearly, she’s a bit eccentric, She almost immediately declares herself, “bored of widowhood,” to her best pal, another game old bird played, surreally, by Mavis Riley from Coronation Street.

Mavis suggests some occupations that the nearly dead can pass their time away with, including knitting and charity works. Being far too eccentric for this sort of thing, she spots a theatre for sale in darkest London (those storm clouds are still gathering) and buys the thing. Clearly she’s eccentric and rich. Mavis thinks she’s gone off her rocker.

Having absolutely no knowledge of the theatre business, she gets in a professional impresario (a great word, which apparently derives from the Latin for undertaker, which is nicely appropriate here) played by Bob Hoskins. Sadly, Bob is trying to extend his range, so he doesn’t come on like an even more bull-necked Grant Mitchell and offer to “sort aht” Ms. Dench’s rivals. No, he’s trying to be grand and posh and not doing very well. His believability is further undermined when it’s clearly obvious that his dialogue has been dubbed about as well as a minor actor in a spaghetti western. One wonders how bad his accent was originally.

Judi likes Bob because he talks back to her. She’s eccentric, rich and also quite feisty. He likes her because she’s got a theatre and she promises not to interfere. So clearly they’re going to get on great.

Except they don’t. Or maybe they do. I’m baffled. As this relationship is supposed to be the heart of the film, you’d have thought they might have made it clear.

Instead they have a few incomprehensible ups and downs. It’s hard to understand why Bob keeps getting annoyed at Judi, because she’s so fluffily likeable as the rich, eccentric and feisty old dear, she’s like a whole box full of kittens offering you money. Her annoyance is not much more understandable as she thought she was flirting with him (he’s quite a catch you must agree) before finding out he’s married. It’s not exactly Lara and Zhivago is it?

Anyway, the theatre is a great success. Will Young plays a gay singer and is unconvincing, which further points to the inadequacies of Pop Idol. He gets across the fact that he’s supposed to be gay by mincing and camping worse than a non-straight man in a Benny Hill sketch. Judi tries to flirt with him anyway. But it’s thanks to Will’s jolly musical numbers that people are flocking to the theatre.

Well, for a while. Theatreland is a cut-throat business and soon attendances are down. So Judi hits on the idea of having female nudity on stage, at a time when people had to be careful to say “codswallop”. She achieves this by convincing the Lord Chamberlain over tea and surprising him with the wide variety of words one can employ for the female private parts (“‘Pudenda’? Don’t you mean ‘pussy’?”). He’s played by Christopher Guest, who once upon a time played Nigel Tufnell in Spinal Tap. The casting’s not that bizarre actually, as Guest is a lord. No, honestly.

So the theatre can have naked women, but Guest insists that they’re not allowed to move. It’s more artistic. Hoskins nevertheless arranges for mice to appear on stage at appropriate moments. Suddenly the theatre is a big success again, although the audience is mostly men and the applause could be said to be the sounds of one hand clapping. The other being otherwise occupied.

But this isn’t smut folks. Oh no. Director Stephen Frears, who seems somewhat lost with material that strays from his usual gritty milieu (My Beautiful Launderette, Dirty Pretty Things), has imbued the whole thing with such a warm nostalgic glow you could get sunburnt. Even when those storm clouds finally stop gathering and rain a German-made blitz on everybody, it’s suddenly ‘we’re all in it together’ time and Dench is quite convincing on the need for young lads about to get their legs blown off to see as much female flesh as possible before they do.

The British Film Industry has had a bad time of it lately, so it’s no surprise that Mrs Henderson Presents is aiming squarely for the same audience who went to see the likes of Calendar Girls. It’s all triumph-over-adversity, spirit-of-the-underdog, mildly-racy-humour, that never comes close to emulating the best of the Ealing pictures it would dearly like to be. But so long as we’re not making films like Rancid Aluminium, that’s okay.

WARNING: Bob Hoskins appears naked in this film. I repeat, Bob Hoskins appears naked in this film. Don’t eat heartily before venturing out to the cinema

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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