Mrs. Henderson Presents seems to have been constructed both as a showcase for two great actors and a historical seriocomedy examining the perseverance of culture in war-torn London. Stephen Frears' film achieves the first goal a bit more readily than the second. Perennial Oscar nominee Judi Dench is fabulous as the titular widow who refuses to grow old via thumb-twiddling hobbies, and Bob Hoskins is her equal sparring partner, playing the proud manager who oversees her revolutionary round-the-clock Windmill Theater. A viewer gets the sense that both actors are having a terrific time, and their chemistry as good as their line deliveries are crisp. But the script tends to undercut their regal performances, having them squabble over trivialities that seem especially featherweight while their city is being reduced to rubble. In this way, Mrs. Henderson Presents is caught somewhere between a war epic and a comedy of manners, with each element detracting some from the thrust of the other. One hesitates to call it a "costume drama," as many of its characters aren't wearing a stitch. Since the film is about how naked women on-stage teased the puritanical sensibilities of the proper English, who recognized they couldn't deny the troops a much-needed morale boost, the script's more farcical elements are the ones that really belong. However, the social commentary loses its teeth when the story shifts focus to the particular performers, and the variety of not-so-surprising problems and tragedies that entangle them. These sections of the film are a little less distinct. On the whole, though, Frears brings his usual sure hand to the project, and uses a unique and clever hook to study an important period of British history. The film just doesn't commit to any one agenda long enough to be a truly enduring work.
by Derek Armstrong review