“Mrs. Henderson” is this year's “Being Julia,” a slender, fluffy, innocuous–and disappointing– movie set in the London theater world in the same year, 1937. Like “Being Julia,” it centers on a grande dame, an energetic entrepreneur, played with formidable authority by Judi Dench.Whether this is a good or bad thing would depend on your liking or disliking “Being Julia,” and the whole notion of star vehicles, Annette Bening in Szabu's and Dench in Stephen Frears' film.
While there have been other films about the Windmill Theatre, such as “Tonight and Every Night” (1945), starring Rita Hayworth as a Windmill girl, this is reportedly the first film to tell the “true” story of Laura Henderson, who died in 1944.
That “Mrs. Henderson” was directed by Frears may come as a shock, considering the edgier films he has made, from “My Beautiful Launderette” to “Dirty Pretty Things.” Lacking grit, or energy for that matter, the new film is a bland middlebrow feature that in ambition and scope is like a high-quality British TV; Dench herself has appeared in a similar TV vehicle, “The Last of the Blonde Bombshells.”
The fact-inspired period piece, which has limited charm, is carried entirely by the estimable Dench, who gives an acerbic reading of her lines. Scripter Martin Sherman's facility for barbed dialogue is matched with Dench's deliciously dry rendition that borders but never stoops to sheer camp. (Just imagine how Maggie Smith would have played the same role). However, unlike “Being Julia,” “Mrs. Hendeson” suffers from lack of subtlety and nuance in plot and characterization. Indeed, the lack of drama, real conflicts, or fully fleshed characters around Dench turns the film into an almost one-woman show.
“Mrs. Henderson” may appeal to the same audiences that embraced last year's “Lavender Ladies,” co-starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, and to people who like intimate, well-acted movies of the British kind. As such, the film serves as a companion piece to “The Dresser” two decades ago, a star vehicle for Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay that also was a valentine to the British theater.
Boasting a nostalgic mood, Frears' movie is a tribute to the indomitable spirit of British theatrical personalities in crisis times. Grounded in the tumultuous pre-War years, “Mrs. Henderson,” serves up a slice of social history. Unlike “Being Julia,” which was abstract and could have taken place anywhere, Frears' period piece is slightly more concerned with authenticity.
Sherman, better known for his plays “Bent” and “Rose,” has constructed a minor, vignettish tale that, while acknowledging political events such as the London blitz, always goes back securely to the interiors of the Windmill Theatre. Dramatically speaking, this is a slender yarn, decorated by frivolous romantic entanglements and personal intrigues.
The film begins in 1937, when Laura Henderson buries her husband Robert, a leading member of upper-class society. Laura's friend, Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow) proposes to relieve the boredom and loneliness of widowhood with a hobby like needlepoint or charity work. However, Laura is too restless and energetic to engage in such trivial matters.
What's a widow to do She takes her Rolls Royce to Soho's Great Windmill Street, where she had noticed a small, disused cinema for sale. Laura buys the property but, clueless as to how to run a theatre, she decides to hire impresario Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), a seasoned pro who's now out of the business. Laura offers him a job, but her audacious remarks prompt him to refuse. She quickly charms him into staying, though, thus beginning a famously explosive love-hate relationship.
Van Damm agrees to stay only if he can exercise complete artistic control. His first idea is to offer non-stop vaudeville, a show that runs all day long, which has never been done before. Van Damm warns Laura that she might lose a hefty sum, but his caution only piques her taste for a gamble. Soon after, they begin auditions on “Revuedeville,” but due to Laura's tempestuous behavior, Van Damm bans her from the auditions.
The Windmill opening night, starring Bertie (Will Young) as the leader of the Millerettes, is such a huge hit that the Windmill's rivals begin to emulate their concept, and inevitably, the Windmill's sales decline. Now it's Laura turn to have an inspired idea. “Lose the clothes!” she says, “Have the girls naked, just as they do in Paris' Moulin Rouge. Damm and Bertie set out to find “perfect English roses” for their new venture. Driving in the rain, they encounter Maureen (Kelly Reilly) who becomes their first recruit to the Windmill's tableaux of girls.
Van Damm cautions that they'll never get their idea past the prudish censor, Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest), but Laura, who's an friend of Cromer, promises to sort it out. Indeed, she promises Cromer that her fantastic nude tableaux will be like gorgeous paintings, a concept that Cromer grudgingly approves contingent that the girls don't move a muscle on stage. Rehearsals begin, but again Henderson's interferences force Van Damm to banish her from rehearsals.
The tableaux girls are a sensation, when the War is declared Van Damm tells the company the theatre must go onto a war footing, “But we will never stop performing, we will never close.” The girls move into the safety of the underground theatre, and when times are better, they go off on dates with servicemen who wait for them at the stage door.
With bombs ever closer, and the street in chaos, a closure notice has been served on the Windmill. Standing atop a small box, Laura explains why she bought the theater and makes a passionate plea to keep the Windmill open. As air raid sirens sound, Cromer concedes defeat, and the Windmill stays open.
Frears plods through the minor subplots of auditions, rehearsals, and the rise and fall of the Windmill. However, whenever Laura is not on screen, the movie sags. Sherman creates minor conflicts, such as Laura's revelation that Vivian is married, though her supposed romantic feelings for him are underplayed. His story also reveals how a tragic loss in Laura's past motivates her philanthropically endeavors and sympathy for the young soldiers and the girls they date.
It's too bad that the production numbers, decorated with beautiful naked women, are weak and unimaginatively staged. “Mrs. Henderson” was shot before the London bombings in July, but watching the movie today adds poignancy to the otherwise stale yarn, suggesting the important function that entertainment plays during political crises. The film's title could have been: “The Show Must Go On.”
The film's greatest strength is Dench's feisty portrayal of a recklessly independent spirit. There's a good match between Sherman's bon mots and Dench's delivery. Inhabiting a role that fits her like a glove, Dench is perfect as the tart-tongued Laura, playing her as a woman aware of her flaws. To accommodate Dench, the movie makes Laura a younger character than she was. When the story opens in 1937, Laura is 69, whereas in actuality she was 75.
The site on Great Windmill Street in London's Soho has a long, varied past. The street took its name from a windmill that stood there from the reign of Charles II until the late 18th century. In 1910, a cinema, the Palais de Luxe, stood on the corner of a block of buildings that included the Apollo and Lyric theatres, off Shaftsbury Avenue. It was one of the first to show silent films, but as larger cinemas opened in the West End, business slowed and it was forced to close.
In 1931, Laura Henderson bought the disused building and hired architect Howard Jones to remodel the interior as a theatre. Named The Windmill, it opened June 22, 1931, with Michael Barrington's play, “Inquest.” It was only a minor success, and the theatre returned to screening films. After the new manager Vivian Van Damm hit upon the idea of producing a non-stop musical revue, “Revuedeville” opened February 3, 1932, featuring 18 acts. In the first few years, the theatre lost a fortune, but eventually, it became a commercial success. However, after the nearby Piccadilly and Pavilion theatres copied its concept, the Windmill's ticket sales declined.
When Henderson and Van Damm decided to recreate Paris' successful Moulin Rouge and put naked girls on stage, business picked up. Skirting London's censors by having the girls pose motionless on stage, like artwork, Van Damm concocted a series sumptuous nude tableaux vivants based around such themes as Mermaids, Red Indians, Annie Oakley and Britannia.
The Windmill was the only theatre in London to stay open throughout the War (except for the 12 compulsory days, September 4-16, 1939), hence earning its legendary slogan, “We Never Closed.” During the Blitz, from September 7 1940 to May 11 1941, the showgirls moved into the safety of the theatre's underground floors.
The Windmill's customers were families, troops, and celebs, including Princesses Helena Victoria and Marie Louise (the daughter and granddaughter of Queen Victoria). Despite occasional problems with male customers, security was always on the lookout for improper behavior. More comical was the “Windmill Steeplechase,” where at the end of a show, customers in the back rows made a mad dash over the top of the seats to nab the front rows.
Though Henderson's relationship with Van Damm was stormy, they had great affection for each other. When she died in 1944, at age 82, she left the Windmill to Van Damm, who continued their work. During his regime, some great British comedians began their careers at the Windmill, including Peter Sellers and Kenneth More. Van Damm continued with the theatre to his death, in 1960, when he left the venue to his daughter, Sheila. Unable to compete with the strip joints and massage parlors, the Windmill closed on October 31, 1964.
In the mid 1960s, The Windmill was reconstructed as a cinema and casino, and in 1973, a campaign was started to revive “The Old Windmill Days.” In February 1974, the venue was bought by the nightclub entrepreneur Paul Raymond, who presented nude shows a la Revuedeville but without the comic element. Today, a lap-dancing club has taken over the building that once was the Windmill Theatre.