Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Mrs Henderson Presents (2005)

It must have an easy sell as a concept - Gosford Park type brings you The Full Monty! But this film is more obvious than anything its showgirls put on display, and makes the criminal mistake of being so...damned...respectable. God forbid this material should have been used as an excuse for a Carry On type comedy - but in a way I might have preferred it to this lumpy mix of bio-pic cliches, period kitsch, and undeveloped narrative. Mrs Henderson Presents relentlessly fails to surprise. The history of British music hall is today, thankfully or regrettably depending on your viewpoint, almost forgotten, unless you get to see some of the mildly painful films featuring music hall stars like Cicely Courtenidge and The Crazy Gang. This film's recreation is itself less than stellar, at no point does anything in this film give such a vivid impression of the time as the opening scene of The 39 Steps, or as much of a feel for backstage process as Topsy-Turvy. Instead, we have a style pinched from Thoroughly Modern Millie where little old rich ladies go flying off for a good time and talk nervous theatre producers into having a nude revue. The characters’ backs stories are all trotted out with dutiful care - Mrs Henderson (Judi Dench) with her son dead in WW1; Vivian Van Damme (Bob Hoskins) the gruff theatre manager with Dutch-Jewish background; Maureen (Kelly Reilly) the English rose starlet with a bad romantic history; but far from giving depth to pizzazz it seems a bad distraction, like a sighing clown; in this kind of mainstream fair you can’t suggest but you have to have someone spell it out, preferably in soliloquy, and then die in a bombing raid for punctuation. Whilst Mrs Henderson presents a damn good idea - something rowdy, beyond the pale, risque - the film itself is a relentless procession of the safely cute and on-the-beat maudlin. There's an interesting recent effort by British culture to re-evaluate the 1930s and WW2 era - which was long painted by such satirically-minded people from Spike Milligan to John Lennon and the socially analytical like Anthony Powell and David Storey as the last hoorah of Blimp types and Empire blowhards, but now it is seen as the vital transition between the Britain of those values and the Britain of today's. Unfortunately, as with Stephen Fry’s also entertaining, also very disjointed Bright Young Things, the attempt to paint a link between then and now is backed up by a relentless stylistic effort to keep everything safe and remote, complete with relentlessly “oh, what a lark” music. It’s like being wrapped in a cotton blanket, even when things turn mildly tragic. Mrs Henderson Presents is ambitious, trying to draw an intersecting line between a specific artistic event - although the Windmill Theatre’s acts are actually tawdry kitsch in themselves - and the general zeitgeist, where the theatre becomes a rare haven for servicemen and Mrs Henderson herself, Roaring Nineties-type rich bohemian, gives unto the staid, flavorless mass populace of Britain a taste of their anything-goes sensibility. It is, frankly, a bit of a stretch. But it’s hard not to be entertained by this film, for all its faults. Anything that almost entirely relies on the acting of Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins is in fairly safe hands, and they give what they should. Dench does play her part with a case of the Angela Lansburys, but it’s necessary her character have a marshmallow centre to make up for the unpalatable exterior which is all upper-class brusqueness and reality-deprived vision. Hoskins sends up his own Churchillian act, and the film’s one real joke involving stripping actually involves male nudity - his, specifically, an image unlikely to be easily forgotten.

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