An unassuming backstage yarn, Mrs. Henderson Presents overcomes several obstacles—not the least of which are its torpid title and inevitable comparisons to Topsy-Turvy—to win our jaded hearts with its effortless charm. Blame Judi Dench. She plays the title character, a dotty dowager in Depression-era London, as a rude and obstinate snob, equal parts endearing and appalling, engaging in the sort of behavior that passes as eccentric among British upper classes but would be diagnosed as psychopathic in anyone else. (She reacts equally to good and bad situations by interjecting, “Well, isn’t that delicious?”) Bored by widowhood and her Gosford Park friends, she suddenly decides to do what any of us would in the same situation: She buys herself a vaudeville theater.
The real-life Mrs. H. hired a music hall veteran, Vivian Van Damm, to run the company; executive producer Bob Hoskins plays him here as second-fiddle sparring partner, Tracy to her Hepburn. Their Revuedeville fizzles, and to spice up the act, Van Damm has his showgirls go the full monty, requiring special dispensation from the censorious Lord Cromer (dry, miscast Christopher Guest). Director Stephen Frears widely avoids cheap sentiment, even when the story veers into the Blitz and Hoskins’s Van Damm starts speechifying about resilience like a tin-pot Churchill. But this is Dame Judi’s show. However extraordinary an actor she may be, she cannot conceal the obvious fact that she’s having the time of her life here. Isn’t that delicious?