Travis McClain’s review published on Letterboxd:
This is at least my third viewing of the film, maybe my fourth. I first checked it out on DVD from the library, then later bought a copy for myself and watched it once with director Stephen Frears's commentary track. I can't recall now whether I gave the film itself a second straight viewing once I owned it, though it seems reasonably likely I did. In any event, I've not seen it since I began to track at-home viewings at the end of 2008 so it's been a while.
There are two primary objectives to any "inspired by real events" movies: 1) To provoke interest in the source material and 2) depict a take on said subject material that works on its own without being conspicuously contrary to the recorded facts. Mrs. Henderson Presents seems to be a success on both points. I have been curious to learn more about the Windmill Theatre, Revudeville. Laura Henderson and Vivian Van Damm. I have not, however, really looked into any of these four subjects beyond reading their respective, very brief Wikipedia pages.
The only obvious contradiction I've encountered so far is that Wikipedia credits Van Damm with finding and exploiting the legal loophole to allow on-stage nudity (so long as the performers remain still), whereas Mrs. Henderson Presents puts that in the hands of Mrs. Henderson. It's a minor detail, ultimately, and it serves the narrative of the film to put the onus on her at that point so it works.
The real reason to watch this film is, of course, for Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins. They're each charismatic anyway, and their chemistry here is perfect. It's a shame this will be their only collaboration now that Hoskins has retired from acting due to his health. This might be my favorite performance by Dench...though she was also terrific in Chocolat! There's something about her playing mischievously that's great fun to watch, and Hoskins is a perfect straight man foil for her here.
The rest of the cast is solid, though only Kelly Reilly really stands out to me. The story itself is so perfunctory that were it not for a handful of gems of dialog and the charm of Dench and Hoskins, Mrs. Henderson Presents might easily be an entirely forgettable film. Reilly's Maureen is the only Millerette we make any effort to get to know, and even that happens so quickly and superficially that she's not much of a character. Reilly's performance imbues Maureen with more depth and humanity than is afforded her by Martin Sherman's screenplay.
That's really my biggest problem with Mrs. Henderson Presents: Everything is in place. The story makes sense, it develops briskly but for the most part organically...and yet, we never spend enough time with anyone other than Henderson or Van Damm to know them or to care about them. We could have, and should have, known more about most of the characters than we do - and we certainly should have cared more about them. Restricting our point of view to Henderson works because of Dench, but it deprives us of the emotional potential of the film.
There's a thesis argument made at the film's end to justify not just the continued operation of the Windmill Theatre, but really the existence of Mrs. Henderson Presents as a film - the notion that even if it isn't high art, the stage show is entertainment and that's important, too. That's fair enough, but the film doesn't even really adopt this as its thesis until the end. If it was the guiding principle of Mrs. Henderson - real or merely her cinematic incarnation here - then it ought to have been made clearer to us earlier.
The use of archival footage of World War II is a bit odd. It works, but clearly it's there because the budget didn't allow for any recreation of the Blitz of London. What doesn't work - at all - is the London skyline shown from the rooftop of the Windmill. It is seriously cringeworthy, especially for a film made in 2005. I rarely truly complain about such things. I may make note of them, as I did with Vertigo when I saw that last October, but it has to be extraordinarily awful for me to penalize a film for it, and that's unfortunately just how much an eyesore the skyline work here really is.
Mrs. Henderson Presents Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#198/1515)
Mrs. Henderson Presents > Carrie --> #198
It's gratifying in an admittedly dark way to watch Carrie finally lash out at her tormentors, but it's not as much fun as the chemistry between Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins in Mrs. Henderson Presents.
Mrs. Henderson Presents < The Good Girl --> #380
Mrs. Henderson Presents features what may be my favorite Judi Dench performance, but the narrative is too perfunctory and underdeveloped. The Good Girl features a compelling story and my favorite Jennifer Aniston performance.
Mrs. Henderson Presents > Father of the Bride, Part II --> #380
Father of the Bride, Part II is likable enough for being an entirely unnecessary sequel afraid to stray from its predecessor, but I'm going with Mrs. Henderson Presents and Judi Dench's irresistible performance.
Mrs. Henderson Presents > The Quest --> #380
The Quest is a guilty pleasure of mine simply because it's so awful (plus, Roger Moore!). Mrs. Henderson Presents isn't as refined as it could have been, but Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins are terrific together.
Mrs. Henderson Presents > Muppets from Space --> #380
I enjoyed Muppets from Space, but it's been so long since I last saw it that I don't remember it vividly enough to pick it over the perfect chemistry between Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins in Mrs. Henderson Presents.
Mrs. Henderson Presents < The Cooler --> #404
I could pick either way on this one depending on the day. I love Dench & Hoskins in Mrs. Henderson Presents, but the narrative is too perfunctory. Going with The Cooler for its stronger story...and Maria Bello!
Mrs. Henderson Presents > DC Showcase: Jonah Hex --> #404
Jonah Hex is probably my favorite DC Comics-based anything that doesn't have Batman or Superman in it. Its story is a lot stronger than is Mrs. Henderson Presents, but I just can't pick against the Dench/Hoskins chemistry.
Mrs. Henderson Presents > Grandma's Boy --> #404
Grandma's Boy is one of my guilty pleasures, if for nothing else than that epic party. It's fun, but not quite as much fun as Judi Dench in full-on mischievousness mode.
Mrs. Henderson Presents > The 40-Year-Old Virgin --> #404
I could probably flip-flop on this one depending on my mood. I just re-watched Mrs. Henderson Presents and I feel pretty entertained by Dench & Hoskins so it gets the nod this time.
Mrs. Henderson Presents > Divorzio all'italiana --> #404
I love the darkness of Divorzio all'italiana, and Marcello Mastroianni's wry performance in it. It has the stronger narrative of these two films, but I didn't light up quite the same way that I did during Mrs. Henderson Presents.
Mrs. Henderson Presents < The Cooler --> #404
Still pretty sure about this one. Ask me again tomorrow! :P
Mrs. Henderson Presents was re-ranked on my Flickchart to #404/1515