With Mrs. Henderson Presents, Stephen Frears offers Judi Dench a Being Julia to call her own. The similarities between the two films are amazing, if mostly Pavlovian: Both Dench and Annette Bening’s performances so forcibly demand attention that the hollow void of their respective films is dramatically revealed whenever the actresses step off screen, leaving the audience salivating for more diva antics. In pre-WWII London, the recently widowed Mrs. Henderson (Dench) takes a solo boat ride in a lake near her home. It’s a mythic image of loneliness that Frears does nothing with, because once Mrs. Henderson’s funeral veil has lifted, the director puts one over the story, concealing from the audience the motivation for why the real-life theater maven put nude girls in her “Revuedeville” shows. So calculated is this disguise that you wouldn’t even know there is a motivation for why Mrs. Henderson is so adamant about bringing bawdy Moulin Rouge-style antics to Soho until the film’s Big Reveal, during which Dame Judi mounts a soapbox and charts for the captive masses the connection between the 21-year-old dead soldier in a French cemetery she visits throughout the film and the rationale for her buying the Windmill Theatre. Given the seriousness of the connection, you’d think Frears would have allowed Dench to evoke a smidgen of this subtext earlier in the film, but this would have meant complicating Mrs. Henderson, and it’s obvious the director much prefers a funny old lady running through the halls of the Windmill firing snarky one-liners at Bob Hoskins & Co. like artillery fire. I’m tempted to borrow one of Mrs. Henderson’s lines and call the film a “frivolous distraction” except a “frivolous Oscar bid” is more like it.
- Stephen Frears
- Martin Sherman
- Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Will Young, Kelly Reilly, Christopher Guest, Thelma Barlow, Anna Brewster, Rosalind Halstead, Sarah Solemani, Natalia Tena
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