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The Weinstein Company presents
Laura: Why don't we get rid of the clothes?
DVD ReviewBack in 1945, a Rita Hayworth musical called Tonight and Every Night saluted England's famed Windmill Theatre, the only venue to offer nightly performances during the chaos and terror of the London Blitz. Legend has it that despite a daily shower of Nazi bombs, the theater never closed, and its defiance—along with the vaudeville-style entertainment it provided—helped boost both civilian and military morale during a very dark time. The film, however, neglects to divulge one vital fact—that a fair number of the Windmill's female dancers appeared on stage stark naked. That's right, naked.
American censorship, of course, prohibited Tonight and Every Night from depicting—much less addressing—this provocative angle of the Windmill's history. But 60 years and a couple of social revolutions later, director Stephen Frears dares to lift the veil (not to mention the blouse, skirt and undergarments), allowing us to peek inside the Windmill during its heyday and ogle its buxom showgirls. Mrs. Henderson Presents chronicles the theater's evolution as it profiles the eccentric and audacious impresario who set the sexy wheels in motion.
And we thought all Brits were prudes.
Recently widowed and loath to wallow in mourning, dowager Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) searches for a stimulating and amusing hobby to fill her lonely hours. She impulsively decides to dabble in the theatrical milieu, and in 1937 leases the Windmill Theatre with the intent of producing stylish vaudeville revues. She hires the feisty Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to manage the staff and mount the shows, and, like a couple of titans, the two clash. Vivian demands complete creative control, but the spoiled, frivolous Mrs. Henderson can't resist meddling in every aspect of production. Brisk business greets the initial shows, but when other music halls copy the Windmill's novel format of round-the-clock performances, interest wanes. Without a new gimmick to boost ticket sales, the theater faces closure.
Mrs. Henderson's brainstorm, however, saves the day. "Let's have naked girls," she suggests with a mischievous twinkle. And when the clothes come off, the patrons come back, and the Windmill once again becomes the toast of London town. War, however, brings with it a new set of challenges, and the German bombs rock not only the theater's foundation, but also the foundation of Laura and Vivian's relationship.
More a light-hearted comedy with musical interludes than a straight historical drama, Mrs. Henderson Presents still marvelously recreates wartime London and captures the period's theatrical flavor. The nudity, like it was at the time, is tastefully presented. Forget any go-go notions; the naked girls remain statuesque and motionless throughout the musical tableaux, which resemble scaled-down versions of Busby Berkeley's outrageous cinematic fantasies. Frears, however, isn't afraid to linger on the female form, but does so in an artistic, rather than lewd, fashion.
Witty repartee abounds in Martin Sherman's script, and the interplay between the odd couple of Dench and Hoskins is often delicious. Dench seems to relish portraying the outspoken, often annoying Mrs. Henderson, and it's a treat to see the actress display her saucy side. Whether she deserved an Oscar nomination for such a breezy role remains open for debate, but, as always, Dench is an unqualified delight, and easily steals focus in every scene in which she appears. Hoskins makes a perfect foil as the exasperated Van Damm, who comes to grudgingly admire Mrs. Henderson despite his dislike of her pompous personality. Christopher Guest also shines in a hilarious turn as a priggish government official who reluctantly green-lights the risqué revue. His tea-time discussion with Dench about the female genitalia is without a doubt the movie's comic highlight.
A few dramatic and poignant scenes punch up the second half, but unfortunately, Mrs. Henderson Presents never rises above a lightweight lark. There's nothing especially wrong with that, but considering the illustrious cast and director, we somehow expect a more substantive, meaningful film. Like the Windmill's patrons, we may be attracted to Mrs. Henderson Presents because of its shapely, supple, unclothed bodies, but in today's permissive society, such titillation is no longer enough.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: Like the best period films, Mrs. Henderson Presents sports a lush, iridescent look that translates beautifully to DVD. Andrew Dunn's sumptuous cinematography is well rendered, with bold colors (especially during the music hall scenes), striking contrast, and wonderful depth. A bit of texture enhances the film's historical flavor, and only an errant speck here and there sullies the vibrant print.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The DD 5.1 audio does a fine job of immersing us in wartime London, with air-raid sirens and exploding bombs lending some sonic heft to this dialogue-driven film. Dynamic fidelity and a rich surround feel augment George Fenton's lovely score, as well as the musical numbers, which range from the sprightly Goody Goody to the romantic All the Things You Are. Impeccable diction by the British cast ensures every line comes through clearly, and no distortion mars the purity of this well-modulated track.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Libertine, Transamerica
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Stephen Frears
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Extras Review: In addition to the film's original theatrical trailer, the disc includes a fair smattering of supplements. First up is a rather dull audio commentary by director Stephen Frears, marked by gaps galore and a droning delivery that rarely engages the listener. Frears' remarks are intelligent, candid, and occasionally interesting, but his disinterested tone sabotages the track. He discusses the digital wizardry that produced period London, shares some of the era's history, and alludes to charges of anti-Semitism stemming from a few lines of Mrs. Henderson's dialogue. He also talks about Dench's "great ability to play grief," and how finding pop star Will Young was "a tremendous break." Director commentaries can either be fascinating or deadly, and unfortunately Frears' effort lands in the latter category, and will be of interest only to the movie's most ardent aficionados.
A 24-minute making-of documentary follows, conveniently divided into five parts that can be played individually, if desired. Sequences include The Real Windmill Girls, which focuses on the surviving models, dancers, and singers who made the Windmill revues such a hot ticket; Casting the Show, which allows the actors to relate how they became involved in the project; The Look, which examines the film's production design, makeup, and costumes; Choreography, which takes us to dance rehearsals and outlines the grueling audition process; and Making the Movie, which, among more typical topics, addresses the film's nudity and the atmosphere of fun that pervaded the set. Interviews with all the major players and crew members, production footage, and a wealth of film clips all combine to create a cohesive and involving piece.
A gallery of 23 production and scene stills, all in glorious color, completes the extras package.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsThough entertaining and meticulously crafted, Mrs. Henderson Presents lacks the depth one expects from its pedigreed cast and crew. Solid transfers and supplements enhance the disc, but it's the ribald chemistry between Dench and Hoskins that makes this cheeky trifle worth watching.
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