Mrs Henderson Presents
Stephen Frears, David Rose, Kathy Rose and Martin Sherman, 2005

It's the 1930s, and newly widowed Mrs. Henderson has, on a whim, decided to buy and renovate a London theater. When her initially successful musical revue flops, she decides that "we've had some good shows, but they're not daring enough. Let's get rid of the clothes." This leads to a run-in with the censors and a misunderstanding with the stage manager and stuff like that but then suddenly it's the Blitz and her theater becomes an Important Symbol of Britain's Defiant Spirit.

I watched this after reading a generally positive review by Rob Wheeler. He did point out some of the problems with the movie, such as its curious emptiness and its repeated commission of the Fallacy of the Profane Granny. But he also noted, "The other thing about this movie is it has a lot of beautiful girls without clothes on." Since that is pretty much the best thing that a visual medium can have in it I made a mental note to check it out sometime. But I was disappointed. Not in the girls — they were indeed beautiful. What disappointed me was the filmmakers' hypocritical cowardliness.

See, this movie tries to get a lot of mileage out of mocking the prudery of the Olden Days. It trots out Christopher Guest, complete with goofy mustache, to twitter about "the disagreeable and somewhat sordid topic of the pudendum" and suchlike. We enlightened modern folk in the audience then chuckle along as Mrs. Henderson reassures poor Chris that "our lighting will be so subtle, the disputed area will be barely visible." The problem is that while they mock this sort of prudery, the filmmakers simulaneously cater to it. Their film is pitched to an audience more prudish than Guest's mustachioed twit.

I have talked in the past about how movies are delivery systems more than they are narratives. People watch Jurassic Park not so much for the story as to see dinosaurs. People watch Capote not so much for the story as to hear Philip Seymour Hoffman do the voice. And by building Mrs Henderson Presents around long performance sequences, the filmmakers implicitly tell us that, to a great extent, we are paying to see the show. Except that unlike Mrs. Henderson's actual audience, we don't get to see it. Sure, we get glimpses. We get a quarter of a second of the onstage tableau followed by a long audience reaction shot, then a few more frames of the show before a quick cut to Judi Dench, and last a daring presentation of our nude actresses — in extreme long shot and carefully lit so that, as promised, you can't actually see anything. This movie does have a lot more nudity than the average Anglo/American film... and it's carefully parceled out into near-subliminal doses so that while you get the feeling you've seen a lot of skin, you can't really point to any nude scenes in the traditional sense. Except for the one involving Bob Hoskins.

Mrs Henderson Presents reminded me a lot of another movie with a very similar structure, interweaving backstage intrigue with onstage live nude performances: Showgirls. Now, Showgirls is one of the worst movies ever made. The plot, character arcs, dialogue, acting, and so forth are uniformly awful. The onstage sequences run the gamut from sleazy to cheesy. And the actresses aren't really all that pretty. But at least Showgirls delivers what it promises. You want to see the chick from "Saved by the Bell" naked? Showgirls doesn't tease you. You will get to see the chick from "Saved by the Bell" naked. No, not the good one. But you knew that going in.

"What do you mean, 'light the scene better'? If we did that people might see that our movie about nude theater has nudity in it! You're fired!"
Mrs Henderson Presents doesn't deliver. Not that it is supposed to deliver the same thing as Showgirls, because Showgirls is basically porn and Mrs Henderson Presents isn't. But when Mrs. Henderson and her stage manager are trying to explain the point of the show to the censors and the prospective models, they point out that a trip to any good museum will prove that beautiful bodies make for great art. This is, of course, true. And thus the stage is set for a demonstration of this principle. But the filmmakers do not demonstrate it. Their editing and mise-en-scène choices indicate that they are either afraid to demonstrate it or don't actually believe it — that in the scene with the censor, we are supposed to be laughing both at him and at the line of bullshit Mrs. Henderson is peddling. Ultimately, Mrs Henderson Presents left me with the impression that the filmmakers don't believe that the nude is beautiful, or artistic, or even sexy, but rather that it's naughty. And that is actually pretty infuriating.

Mrs Henderson Presents has some breasts in it, briefly glimpsed but relatively frequently glimpsed for an anglophone movie. There are a couple of shots in which you can tell that the women are shaved (because they're supposed to be representing 19th century paintings, and also because the actresses are under 30 and this is the 21st century) but these are filmed in long shot. There's also a scene with some dicks in it. Finally, the titular Profane Granny says "pussy."

According to various localities, here's how old you have to be to be allowed to see this.

  • any age: France, Iceland, Quebec
  • any age, with parental guidance: British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario
  • any age, but mature viewers suggested: Australia
  • 6: Netherlands
  • 7: Finland, Norway, Sweden
  • 10: Switzerland
  • 12: Britain
  • 13: Argentina
  • 14: Brazil, Alberta, Nova Scotia
  • 15: Ireland
  • 17: USA
  • 18: Singapore
  • N/A, banned: Malaysia

I mean, for fuck's sake. If we're going to be nearly as censorious as Singapore, we could at least do a better job of keeping chewing gum off the street.

Return to the Calendar page!