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Dench lights up ‘Mrs. Henderson Presents’

Actress becomes a likely best actress Oscar nominee with this performance
/ Source: The Associated Press

Judi Dench could sit motionless on an overturned bucket surrounded by dancing emus, bodybuilders juggling small kitchen appliances and a tableau of naked nymphs, and she still would be the most interesting thing in sight.

OK, the nude women might occasionally steal attention from Dench, as they do now and then in Stephen Frears’ wonderful comic drama “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” based on the true story of a 1930s British society dame who started a stage revue featuring women in the buff.

As she showed again with her few scene-stealing moments in this fall’s “Pride & Prejudice,” Dench is one of the most emotive, dominating actresses on the big screen. A haughty glance, a dismissive flick of her pinky finger, and Dench simply makes everyone around her go flat and fuzzy.

Imagine Dench at her most caustically imperious yet crankily lovable for a full film and you’ll have a sense of the enormous entertainment value of “Mrs. Henderson Presents.”

Toss in Bob Hoskins as Dench’s blustery friend, foil and straight man, and the film presents a can’t-miss duo trimmed out by a hearty supporting cast and the blend of spirited black humor and pure class that Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters,” “High Fidelity”) again proves himself a master.

The film opens on a black day for Laura Henderson (Dench) as she buries the husband whose companionship clearly defined her life. Laura wonders how she’ll fill the days, weeks and years stretching before her, and her perky fellow widow Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow) advises her to take on good charitable works — and have some fun spending the fortune hubby left her.

Quickly bored by the bland altruism of other upper-crust ladies, Laura catches sight of a rundown theater for sale, the Windmill, buys it on a lark and begins renovations without a clue as to what she’ll do with it.

She hooks up with bullheaded manager Vivian Van Damm (Hoskins), whose immediate clashes with Laura signal the start of a symbiotic love-hate relationship.

After initially packing in crowds with London’s first ’round-the-clock performance schedule, the Windmill tumbles into hard times, and Van Damm advises Laura to close the theater, which is bleeding money.

But Laura hits on the notion of luring crowds back by slipping nude women into the act. Her campaign to win government approval for such a daring display results in priceless exchanges with the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest, so comically starchy it’s hard to believe this is the same man whose Nigel Tufnel bragged in blind idiocy about an amplifier with a volume knob that went up to “11” in “This Is Spinal Tap”).

Laura and Van Damm’s nude revue becomes a runaway hit and a morale booster during World War II for soldiers and citizens enduring nightly Luftwaffe bombings.

At this point, the screenplay by Martin Sherman turns a bit manipulative, particularly regarding one of the Windmill’s nude stars, Maureen (Kelly Reilly), whose wartime straits feel like a contrivance to inject crisis into a story that lacks strong personal drama.

Yet Reilly and other co-stars’ peppy performances, the vibrant song-and-dance routines and especially the cheeky interplay between Dench and Hoskins — who both have strong Academy Awards prospects — make “Mrs. Henderson Presents” an absolute crowd-pleaser.

If the film lacks meaty interpersonal conflict, Frears and company more than compensate with a breathlessly paced piece of pure entertainment whose theatrical effervescence is a fitting tribute to the stage revues of Laura Henderson.