Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins make a perfect — if somewhat unorthodox — screen team in this delightful new film from Stephen Frears about the history of London’s legendary Windmill Theatre. Don’t let the historical notion — nor even that dreaded phrase “inspired by true events” — put you off. This is no dry study of history.
It’s a delicious confection about unlikely events allowing themselves the luxury of occurring in unlikely places — and its finally something more thanks to its stars, a wonderful screenplay by Martin Sherman (Bent) and the assured direction of Frears. Dame Judi stars as the recently widowed Laura Henderson, an outspoken, frequently impossible woman who finds the venues open to her as a widow boring and shallow. Seizing upon one piece of advice — that she’s now free to “buy things” — she impetuously buys the ramshackle, boarded-up Windmill Theatre. Since she hasn’t clearly thought what to do with it, she enlists the aid of out of work theatrical impressario Vivian Van Damm (Hoskins) to turn it into a going concern.
Their first meeting ought to be a disaster. She’s late, rude and condescending. Discussing Vivian’s background she concludes, “Oh, dear God, you’re Jewish.” “As it happens, I’m not,” claims Vivian, only to be told, “Well, of course you are, dear, just look at yourself. But the show business is filled with Jewish people, isn’t it? One must make do. We haven’t met. I’m Laura Henderson.” Without batting an eye, Vivian responds, “Yes, I imagined you were. You’re 20 minutes late and you’re rude.” Naturally, she’s charmed and offers him total artistic control of the Windmill.
It’s a good match and his idea of continuous shows rather than two shows a day is a hit — until other theatres copy the idea. “We’ve put on some good shows, but they’re obviously not daring enough. Why don’t we get rid of the clothes? Let’s have naked girls, don’t you think?” she reasons. Of course, such a thing wasn’t “done” in England and would be immediately scotched by the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest, A Mighty Wind). He, however, is not unbendable to the concept as art — so long as the girls don’t move but are used in tableaux, which he likens to an art gallery. It hardly matters that neither Mrs. Henderson nor the Lord Chamberlain harbor any real illusions about high art.
Thus, the legend of the Windmill — somewhat superceded by the theatre’s later boast that it never closed during World War II — was born. As a story, it’s engaging and it offers ample scope for comedy, backstage stories and, of course, a good deal of decorous — and some not so decorous — displays of skin. It doesn’t on the surface offer a great deal of depth, though the characterizations of Laura Henderson and Vivian Van Damm do, especially as concerns their never quite romance, which is also never quite not a romance.
However, there’s something more here bubbling away under the surface in the way the film normalizes sex and sexuality in a refreshing manner. There are no taboos in the world of the Windmill — everything is open and above board, even the existence of gays in the theatre is nothing but a fact of life. Even in the 21st Century this is still a radical approach, and it gives the film the feeling of being considerably more than a period piece.
As a Stephen Frears film, Mrs. Henderson might be viewed as rather slight — especially coming after Dirty Pretty Things — but Frears is a director who has never been exactly predictable, or able to be pigeon-holed with any precision. That doesn’t keep his best work — My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Dirty Pretty Things — from being among the finer films of the past 20-plus years, and while Mrs. Henderson may not quite rank with his best work, it’s a lot nearer that mark than its easy charm might make it appear. It’s definitely a little treasure. Rated R for nudity and brief language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke