Titillation for the hoity-toity and hoi polloi. That's what the heroine and hero of Mrs. Henderson Presents, a wealthy widow (Judi Dench) and her music-hall impresario (Bob Hoskins), offer to the theatergoing public in the 1930s and '40s, as breadlines grow and the Nazi threat erupts into the Battle of Britain.
Under the guise of a fact-based period piece, that's what director Stephen Frears and writer Martin Sherman bequeath to their moviegoing public, too - a humorous bounty of flesh and fantasy.
With poster-art colors and rimshot punch lines, the filmmakers and their cast put over Mrs. Henderson's crusade to employ comely yet starving actresses at her Windmill Theatre, relieve the tension of Depression audiences of all classes, and give Allied troops what may be their last glimpse of paradise on Earth.
The whole movie is about priming the sap that makes life worth fighting for. And there's just enough characterization and plot to give the naughtiness and nostalgia some real oomph. Mrs. Henderson's crush on her producer, a Brit of Dutch ancestry named Vivian Van Dam, goes next to nowhere. But her suspicion that he's Jewish ignites the movie's funniest joke as well as its most understated and moving display of compassion.
Dench and the equally brilliant Christopher Guest - as a lordly, aroused censor - make an uproarious pair of antagonists. They're supreme practitioners of verbal pingpong. But the profoundly wacky Dench is the vital core of the movie. She brings to life a headstrong, cultivated woman who at heart is both romantic and profane.
When Mrs. Henderson delivers a climactic sidewalk speech to keep the Windmill open despite the Blitz, Dench exemplifies the spiritual largesse of the theatrical extrovert. Hoskins is almost as much fun as a cautious man capable of flair, and the female ensemble of their nude revue summons just the right blend of abashment, pride and growing confidence.
The great critic Dwight Macdonald used to say he couldn't understand why people sneered at the concept of "art for art's sake." He asked: What better sake is there? As a historical fiction and a theatrical showpiece, Mrs. Henderson Presents does something similar. It reaffirms the juiciness and worthiness of bawdy entertainment for entertainment's sake.
Mrs. Henderson Presents (The Weinstein Co.) Starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins. Directed by Stephen Frears. Rated R. Time 102 minutes.