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Melding the high and low in English humor


Like so much else in English society, contemporary differences in styles of humor appear connected to the ancient, burdensome stratifications of social class. In crude terms, for those who remember the television imports of some years ago, the comic alternatives generally split between Monty Python and Benny Hill, representing the high and the low in English humor.

The Monty Python Flying Circus, carried in this country on PBS, naturally, featured a group of chinless, upper-class Oxford twits beating a few oddball, occasionally clever ideas to death, with sophomoric antics, purposely amateurish sets, and quite a bit of transvestism. The Benny Hill Show, broadcast on various secondary commercial channels, specialized in vulgar, lower-class, music hall turns and bawdy skits and sight gags. Monty Python appealed to a generally more sophisticated audience and built careers for several of its cast members, the second, though full of cheerful vitality, unfortunately died with its creator.

The new movie, Mrs. Henderson Presents, inspired, as they say, by "true events," refreshingly combines some of the characteristics of both schools. It deals with history from the perspective of privilege, but draws most of its people and action (and entertainment) from rather lower strata of society. Its central subject and setting, the famous Windmill Theatre in London, belongs squarely in the grand lower-class English tradition of the music hall, a venue for variety acts related to American vaudeville.

The film opens in 1937, with the wealthy Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) burying her husband and confronting the pain, loneliness, and boredom of widowhood. Willful and independent, she looks for something to occupy her time and energies, which leads her to the impulsive purchase of a decrepit London theater, where she resolves to present musical revues. She hires an experienced manager, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), who helps her to realize her ambition with theatrical innovations like continuous showings of singing, dancing, juggling, and so forth, in a variety production they call "revuedeville."

After an initial success, everyone else copies their idea of continuous showings and their profits consequently decline. Mrs. Henderson comes up with the brilliant solution of populating the stage with nude women, which she persuades the official censor will be entirely decorous, since the women will remain still, exactly like statues or living versions of paintings. Van Damm scours the countryside for fresh, unspoiled young women --- "English roses" --- convinces them to disrobe, and constructs a series of musical numbers with nude tableaux as backdrops.

The Windmill prospers through the 1930s and '40s, enduring the Blitzkrieg with typical English fortitude when all the other London theaters closed, entertaining thousands of British and American soldiers. Because she lost her only son in World War I, she sympathizes with the young men and believes they deserve the kind of innocently sexual joy that he never experienced.

The quaintly old-fashioned musical numbers, mostly those bouncy, tinny songs of the period, along with various nude tableaux, provide a lively and virtually continuous display of the Windmill's chief attraction. They also form a backdrop of their own for a number of subplots, including the ambiguous relationship, sometimes tense, sometimes almost loving, between the imperious aristocrat and the lower-class Jewish manager. The fact of the war itself also accounts for some moments of genuine pathos, reminding us of the death and destruction that surrounded the fun of the Windmill.

Dench and Hoskins make a terrific pair of opposites, his nervous energy a constant contrast to her confident hauteur; together, they perform their comic bits with impeccable timing and convey genuine emotion in their more serious moments. Hoskins even bravely does a full frontal nude scene to put his performers at ease (some things a young person should not look upon), which also gives Dench one of her best throwaway lines.

The combination of broad humor and some beautifully timed comic dialogue, along with the liveliness of the song-and-dance numbers, perfectly fits the period look of the production, forming a kind of tribute to the era and the people. The pretty, natural young women, clothed and especially unclothed, remind us of the truth of Mrs. Henderson's analogy to sculpture and painting: since time began, the nude female body remains a perennially beautiful subject for art and in this case, for film.

Mrs. Henderson Presents (R), directed by Stephen Frears, is playing at Little Theatres and Pittsford Plaza Cinema.