No one does haughty imperiousness like Judi Dench, who slings witticisms from on high like lightning bolts from Zeus, but with a certain bored apathy, as if she can barely be bothered to insult those below her station. In her two bravura scenes in the recent Pride & Prejudice, Dench goes toe-to-toe with one of the most headstrong women in literature and proves a perfectly intimidating match. As a bored and slightly blinkered old widow in Stephen Frears' Mrs. Henderson Presents, she couldn't be more ideally cast, especially in the frothy opening half, when she boldly sets about reviving a theater in London's West End with just a wave of her hand. When called upon, Dench can also deliver serious gravitas, but after a few reels of pleasantly insubstantial behind-the-scenes theatrics, the specter of World War II is too much for Frears' airy period comedy to bear. The movie seems as closed off from reality as Dench's aristocratic heroine, and the dropping of Nazi bombs pierces its brittle shell.
As the film opens in the late '30s, Dench's powerful husband has just died, and she's already grown tired of playing the grieving widow. A friend suggests embroidery as a hobby, but a single pinprick sends her off to a more ambitious endeavor: rebuilding a theatre to entertain the downtrodden masses. To that end, she hires Bob Hoskins, whose brusque temperament and stubborn single-mindedness creates an affectionate friction between the two. They initially open the continuously running "Revuedville"a musical revue with elements of vaudevillebut when receipts start to sag, Dench retools the show into an all-nude revue.
That causes an uproar, of course, with Christopher Guest's snooty Lord Cromer brought in to approve the baring of breasts, provided that they be displayed in tableaux as if in a museum. Poking fun at uptight British civility has long been a monocle-shattering comedic staple, and Mrs. Henderson Presents gets by for a while on its genial naughtiness. But when the war intrudes and Dench reflects on the loss of her son in World War I, the frivolity abruptly ends, and the movie perishes along with it. A stirring speech to the troops seems certain to secure Dench another Oscar nomination, but considering the wispy artificiality that surrounds her, she could just as well deliver it from the award podium.