The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.Starring Judy Dench and Bob Hoskins. Directed by Stephen Frears.
Running Time: 103 mins.
Rated: Rated M.
Stephen Frears has been making films for television, small budget features and big-budget Hollywood features since the early 1970s (like Bloody Kids, My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, Liam, Dirty Pretty Things). You cannot predict his next project, although most of them tend to be serious with social comment. You could not predict his choice of Mrs Henderson Presents.
While Mrs Henderson Presents is interested in surfaces (especially bare human surfaces) and the film can give the impression of being a cheerful bit of nostalgic fluff, it does in fact go below the surfaces.
Best to say straight out that its subject is the Windmill Theatre in Soho which introduced naked women on stage just before World War II - with great success. Laura Henderson, widow of a businessman who had made a fortune in India, bought an old theatre, refurbished it, hired Vivian Van Damm to manage it and produce the shows.
A fair amount of the dialogue concerns the human body and our attitudes when an issue like the Windmill nudes comes up. Nowadays, very few people are going to be upset by the subject. Does that mean we have become too permissive, that anything goes on stage, screen and TV set? There may be something in that. But that would be to miss the point of Mrs Henderson Presents. The film is more interested in acknowledging that, whether we approve of it or not, we are bodily people. God made us this way. While privacy is important, prudery is an excess of it and can be dangerously repressive with some dire consequences when people break out of it. Prudery seems to get bodyliness and privacy out of proportion.
The Lord Chamberlain, until the 1960s, had to make decisions about what was permitted on the London state and what forbidden. The compromise in the 1930s was that the models had to remain perfectly still - and so the analogy was with the classics of pictorial or statue art (forgetting that across the channel in Paris, they had long since worked out these problems at the Moulin Rouge and other clubs). The film's screenplay has several speeches along these lines.
While there are moments of total nudity (where the producer and the stagehands strip, for instance, to make the models feel more at ease), if you blink you will miss them. The tableaux on stage are designed to resemble art works. It should be noted that the British censor gave the film a certificate that allowed 12 year olds to see it.
Mrs Henderson is played by Judi Dench, bombastic, complacently upper-class yet invigorated by her theatre and challenged by the issues of nudity. Bob Hoskins plays Van Damm. The Lord Chamberlain is played for genteel caricature by Christopher Guest (writer director of such hilarious spoofs as Best In Show and A Mighty Wind). Should someone suggest he is miscast, others will let them know that he is fact a member of the House of Lords, Lord Haden Guest!
But there is a lot more below the surfaces. This is a portrait of London and British society in the 1930s, the generation that had to face the war while many were still grieving over World War I losses. In the latter part of the film, this is quite strong as it turns into a story of London, the Blitz and the Windmill never closing as it boosted morale. There is quite some pathos towards the end.
However, it is a film of nostalgia for a period that is long gone. Walking around Picadilly Circus and Great Windmill Street where the film is set, you now see a mixture of ethnic groups that are not to be found in the film. This film is a tribute to the undaunted spirit of the British past.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.