Dame Judi at Her Comedic Best ; 'Mrs. Henderson Presents' Tells the Real-Life Story of a Controversial Theater Owner

Article excerpt

This must be the season for movies featuring indomitable English widows. Last week there was Joan Plowright in "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont," and now there's the marvelously enjoyable "Mrs. Henderson Presents" starring Judi Dench.

Shortly after her husband's death, to relieve her boredom, Laura Henderson purchases a West End theater, the Windmill. With his cigars and pomaded coif, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) is the impresario she hires and immediately locks horns with. He wants complete artistic freedom, she wants to meddle. Observing the first round of auditions, she is aghast as one would-be starlet after another is promptly dismissed by Van Damm. (She likens the process to a pagan ritual).

After the Windmill's initial success dwindles, she comes up with idea of doing a show in which the girls onstage appear naked.

It's wartime in London, and between Blitzes the theater does a thriving business in servicemen. Despite its scandalous reputation, the show itself is relentlessly tasteful, in the manner of '40s Hollywood musicals: In order to stay within the bounds of official censorship, the girls pose decorously as tableaux vivants. They're nudie cuties serving the cause of king and country.

Dench's role is so smack dab in her best comic hauteur range that it would be easy to mistake what she does as simple coasting. But though there's real snap and ginger to her presence, the key to the performance is the depth of feeling beneath the imperiousness. …