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With: Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Kelly Reilly, Christopher Guest
Written by: Martin Sherman
Directed by: Stephen Frears
MPAA Rating: R for nudity and brief language
Running Time: 103
Date: 09/09/2005

Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Garden Variety

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Films that can successfully combine comedy and drama usually strike gold. Chaplin did it repeatedly, in films like The Kid (1921) and City Lights (1931). Even the painfully bad Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) struck gold with its awkward combo. But this is harder than it looks. This year, several films, from Happy Endings to The Family Stone have tried and failed. Sadly, the new Mrs. Henderson Presents joins them.

The trouble begins when a title card announces the film's setting as 1937 London. We know that the Blitz and World War II will enter into the story, and that violins will weep and beloved characters will die.

But for an hour, we get a lightweight comic romp along the lines of a more upscale Full Monty. The recently widowed Mrs. Henderson (Judi Dench) decides that a life of gossip and luncheons isn't for her and buys a theater. She hires the equally stubborn Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to run it for her, and the two spend the next few years bickering over every little decision. Among their notable achievements is bringing nudity to the London stage, although the Lord Chancellor (Christopher Guest) decrees that the unclothed women must remain motionless, like classic works of art.

Though Van Damm casts a bevy of beauties for his naked tableaus, the film focuses on just one, the blond Maureen (Kelly Reilly, also in Pride and Prejudice). While our two heroes have a great time butting heads, Maureen lives through one tragedy after another, keeping her upper lip stiff and her head held high, and it's through her that the film finally sinks into its own importance.

Director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things) usually excels at jumping genres, but fails to do so within a single film. The jovial first half fails to get beneath the surface of these silly people and, when we're asked to actually care about them, their thinness snaps under the story's mawkish weight. Francois Truffaut's powerful The Last Metro (1980) tells the same kind of story, but has the foresight to prepare its rich layers right from the start.

Working from a true story, Frears and screenwriter Martin Sherman have designed a vivid theatrical world, complete with a list of new, vintage-sounding songs, boisterous musical numbers and spiky performances by the two leads. Perhaps viewers could stick around until the first bomb drops, then exit the theater in an orderly fashion. Mrs. Henderson herself could expect no less.

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