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Mrs. Henderson Presents

Judi Dench is commonly regarded as Britain's greatest living actress, and in her native country she's collected enough theater awards to crack the mortar behind her mantelpiece. However, while she's made several notable appearances on film, she's also known for earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Shakespeare in Love (1998), despite only appearing on screen for eight minutes. Thankfully, for those who know her best from Shakespeare, her role as 'M' in recent James Bond franchises, or even from her turn in The Chronicles of Riddick, Stephen Frears' Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) grants her the spotlight from first scene to last. Dench stars as the title character, Laura Henderson, a recently widowed 70-year-old Englishwoman whose husband left her quite a bit of money, it little else. Bored with life as a proper widow in 1937 London, and still melancholic over the death of her son in World War I, she finds herself at loose ends until she happens upon an abandoned West End theater, The Windmill, which appears on the verge of demolition. In a fit of fancy she buys it, and before long she locates a manager, Vivian Van Damme (Bob Hoskins), whom she hires almost as quickly as she bought the theater. However, theirs is not a happy relationship — Laura and 'V.D' come from different classes, but are equally headstrong, and while Van Damme is granted artistic control, it's never clear who's in charge. He creates the formula for the theater's initial success, "Revuedeville," an all-day, non-stop musical revue. But when other theaters copy the format, it's Mrs. Henderson who gives The Windmill second life by convincing the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest) to permit tasteful on-stage nudity. Within a few years, London finds itself under The Blitz, where the Windmill's below-street setting proves a safe and popular location for rowdy soldiers. However, Laura finds herself smitten with Van Damme — and after she discovers he's married, the entire venture is threatened with collapse.

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Mrs. Henderson Presents isn't drawn from whole cloth. Executive producer Bob Hoskins agreed to take on the project before screenwriter Martin Sherman delivered a completed script, in part because of The Windmill Theater's status as a minor London legend — put simply, during the Depression and war years, it was the only place in England where men could see the sort of on-stage nudity that was more common in Continental cabarets. Laura Henderson and Vivian Van Damme are also drawn from history, and with Sherman's script both Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins get showcase roles, dashing off repartee like screwball veterans. The film also isn't a tease — there's plenty of nudity in the musical rehearsals and scenes, although always in either tasteful tableau or for the sake of humor. Director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity) fills out the picture with several musical numbers, with "Pop Idol" star Will Young taking center stage as the featured singer, reviving the best of bygone music-hall traditions. Thanks to the collection of talent on hand, Mrs. Henderson is strongest in its first half, mostly as a low-key comedy of manners. However, the narrative becomes more challenging as it progresses into the war years, in particular with a startling tone-shift as the Nazi Blitz strikes the heart of London. The story remains appealing, but it also feels as if another film entirely has gotten underway. Due to its solid production values, Mrs. Henderson Presents never quite loses its footing. But with an ambitious plot spanning several years and at least two genres, one gets the feeling there's a miniseries in here that's trying to get out. The Weinstein Company's DVD release features a solid transfer with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, although the few moments of speckling on the source-print is unusual for a new-from-theaters release. Extras include a commentary with director Stephen Frears, the featurette "The Making of Mrs. Henderson Presents" (24 min.), a stills gallery, and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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