Shiny Shelf

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: Mrs Henderson Presents

By Jim Smith on 09 November 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

A cynical man might look at Stephen Frears’ indifferent and largely jolly ‘Mrs Henderson presents’ and come to the conclusion that, having seen Mike Leigh gain clout and praise for a lavish historical film about theatrical people, he decided to do the same.

Set, initially, before World War Two, ‘Mrs Henderson presents’ is the story of the Windmill Theatre, Soho (about 90 seconds walk from where I’m presently sitting) and its evolution from an abandoned rep theatre to a burlesque/revue/vaudeville venue thanks to the combined efforts of a wealthy widow (Judi Dench) and an old-fashioned music hall manager (Bob Hoskins).

Good things first – the production design is a genuine delight, with a beautiful recreation of the street and its surrounding environments. The script is emotionally literate and never lacks sincerity or a sense of fun. The performances are all note-perfect, from Dench’s boisterous, quicksilver, emotionally-wounded old fantasist to Hoskins’ complex, determined, noble entrepeneur, via Christopher Guest’s hilarious turn as a befuddled Lord Chancellor. Hoskins, lithe, bewigged and speaking RP is virtually unrecognisable. Will Young, as a gay showboy, is startlingly effective. The girls in the show are lively, lovely and coy.

There is a big problem with ‘Mrs Henderson presents’ however; and that’s that it’s television. With its creaky warmness, ensemble nature and period setting, it feels like it should be chopped into fifty minute blocks and shown on Sunday nights on BBC One. That’s where this material really belongs, where it would flourish. There’s nothing overtly cinematic and the production, not even the scale or the cast. The greater running time, and compartmentalisation, of a multi-part TV series would allow the material to breath.

The movie is, in the way of things that really should be television (I’m thinking here of, say, the adaptation of Meera Syal’s ‘Anita and Me’) both underdeveloped and overlong. There’s too much, and too much distinctly episodic, material for a two hour picture. Everything is crushed into this single, large viewing experience; one which doesn’t really do justice to the subject matter while seeming to, well, go on a bit, to be honest. For example, a subplot about one of the girls becoming pregnant because she buys into Mrs Henderson’s own romantic view of young men in uniform really deserves a whole hour of its own. Here, it seems stripped of significance and meaning by being so limited in terms of its screen time; more, it’s the kind of subplot that starts, runs its course, and then ends with the rest of the movie going on before and after, rather than around, it. There’s a term for this – episodic narrative, and the place for it is in an episodic medium.

‘Mrs Henderson presents’ is alternatingly whimsical and political, trivial and wise. It’s charming, often moving and always skilfully performed. It argues that there are worse things in the world than seeing naked people, the stupidity and carnage of war for one, but it doesn’t do it very compellingly, to be honest. On television ‘Mrs Henderson presents’ would be at top end of the kind of drama it is, in the same vein as the best episodes of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ or ‘The House of Elliot’, even in the cinema what it principally stirs in one is the desire to stretch out on the sofa, drink tea and eat sandwiches and cake and then do the same next week.

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