MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS directed by Stephen Frears, written by Martin Sherman, with Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins. An Alliance release. 103 minutes. Opens December 25. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
There are good interviews, bad interviews - and then there's Stephen Frears.
The British director behind such classic and wide-ranging films as Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters is notoriously uncomfortable in the interview chair.
"Is he in a good mood?" I ask the publicist outside the suite at the Intercontinental. It's the beginning of the Film Festival.
"I think so," he whispers, checking my name off his list.
Two rooms down, actor Bob Hoskins opens the door. I suddenly regret not requesting a one-on-one with Hoskins. He's a co-star and producer on Mrs. Henderson Presents. He hired Frears. He's got that great working-class accent. How could he be mean?
In fact, during the making of the film, when Hoskins told Frears he didn't know how to play his character a Dutch Jew named Vivian Van Damm, who ran London's Windmill Theatre from the late 1930s Frears told him, "All you've got to do is play me."
So, claims Hoskins, he played a grumpy, irritating old man.
Frears's hotel door opens, and another journalist not, I notice, reduced to tears leaves.
What's strange about Frears is that he's talkative but not very insightful at least on record.
"I think you journalists see more in these things than I do," he tells me, when I ask about common links among his films. The theme of class, for instance, runs through most of his films, including this one.
The well-connected Mrs. Henderson (Judi Dench), in her late 60s and recently widowed, decides to buy a rundown Soho theatre rather than fade into retirement. So she hires Van Damm, a streetwise man of the theatre. When she gets the idea to mount all-nude revues, she uses her connection to Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest, in a small, droll role) to get the political go-ahead.
"If you live in Britain, the idea of class is unavoidable," he says, looking out the hotel window and displaying his profile.
When I mention that the film in tone and subject matter feels like a departure for him, he sighs, "Well, you don't want to keep making the same film again and again."
He does admit that the shoot was more difficult than others. It's not a musical, but there were a dozen musical numbers to stage. It's not a war movie, but there was the difficulty of having to recreate the London blitz.
"You try to hire the best people to look after all of that," he says. "We had a great choreographer who knew about the period."
One thing Frears has always had is an uncanny ability to spot emerging talent, from Daniel Day-Lewis (My Beautiful Laundrette) to High Fidelity (Jack Black).
In Mrs. Henderson Presents, the big discovery is Kelly Reilly, who plays one of the nude revue girls working at the Windmill.
She has an ethereal quality not unlike Marilyn Monroe's.
"I have to cast using relative unknowns," he says, "because I can't afford a Leonardo DiCaprio."
As for Dench, their relationship goes back to the 1980s, when the two worked on TV dramas.
Was it difficult to get her to say the word "fuck" repeatedly, as she does in one scene?
"There's a whole side of her that the world doesn't know," he says. "She's got this mischievous, sexy, naughty aspect. And it's finally coming out."
MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS (Stephen Frears) Rating: NNN
Mrs. Henderson Presents is an entertaining, middlebrow romp about an oddball couple fighting censorship and loneliness in pre-second world war London. The recently widowed aristocrat Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) buys up the derelict Windmill Theatre, hires a Jewish businessman named Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to manage it and then decides to put on all-nude revues to draw in the masses.
Director Frears doesn't take the material too seriously, and in some scenes moves his camera around playfully in homage to musical comedies of the era. Dench breezes through her first big-screen role since Mrs. Brown, while Hoskins and newcomer Kelly Reilly add strong support. Only when the script tries to convince us of the importance to young soldiers of seeing naked women does it come across as maudlin and mawkish.