The 2005 World War II comedy/drama Mrs. Henderson Presents features another typically strong performance from one of England’s most beloved cultural exports, Dame Judi Dench. As Laura Henderson, a high society widow who buys a London theater out of sheer boredom, Dench spends a large portion of the film shocking the conservative British establishment with her unorthodox viewpoints and liberal use of profanity. The film is arguably the apex of comedy for anyone who enjoys watching an elderly woman use dirty words while fellow elders gasp and recoil with horror.
After purchasing The Windmill Theater, Mrs. Henderson hires crotchety theater manager Vivian Van Damm (the late and great Bob Hoskins) and stages a conventional variety act. This strategy quickly attracts an audience of almost no one. Bored and fast approaching financial ruin, she decides to create a show featuring nude women, a titillating tactic that promises to differentiate her brand of theater from that of her competitors. Despite the objections of the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest), who sanctions the idea on the condition that the women remain motionless while undressed, Mrs. Henderson’s new variety act becomes very popular very quickly, proving that loosening social mores is not a surefire path to the hell. When the Germans begin bombing London, Mrs. Henderson’s theater becomes an unexpected symbol of British resistance, stubbornly refusing to close its doors or cover its actresses.
The film’s most shocking attribute, however, is not the bare women that adorn Mrs. Henderson’s stage, but the inherently sexist argument its protagonist articulates over and over again. Without any subtlety Mrs. Henderson suggests that young women can best serve their country during war by transforming themselves into sexual fantasies aimed at lifting male soldiers’ spirits. Near the film’s conclusion, she assures a group of men headed to the front lines that so long as conflict ensues, her theater will remain open and provide plenty of naked ladies to gawk at.
The narrative reinforces Mrs. Henderson’s point of view by portraying the female performers as more than willing to embrace their roles as heroine sex symbols. This idea is somewhat disconcerting, considering that at that same time American women were punching factory time cards in support of the war effort. I have a hard time picturing Rosie the Riveter getting on stage and dropping trou, even for the benefit of the cause.
So while the plot of Mrs. Henderson Presents revolves around subverting hoary morals, the film simultaneously presents a somewhat antiquated viewpoint of its own, and this unexpected twist makes it quite compelling in spite of the often forced “I hate you/I love you” routine perpetuated by Hoskins and Dench.