When it comes to upstaging the universe, Dame Judi is certainly the trouper that Annette Bening was, and then some. Here she portrays an imperious septuagenarian named Laura Henderson who, after three decades in India, returns to pre-World War II London, buries her husband and sinks his leftover millions into a career of her own. No prolonged grief, dull charity fetes or garden-club meetings for this human whirlwind. When she sees that a decrepit theater on Soho's Great Windmill Street is for sale, she pounces. Then she hires a stylish impresario named Vivian Van Damm (veteran Bob Hoskins) to stage musical revues and quickly forges a relationship with her new collaborator that ranges from comically antagonistic to downright bloody. If anyone can hold his own in the company of the outrageous, touchingly out-of-touch Mrs. Henderson, it's a seasoned old professional like Van Damm. He calls her on her crackpot schemes and fights fire with fire. Their barbed, beautifully timed exchanges are a pleasure to hear and to watch, as though we were seeing Tracy and Hepburn reborn.
Between Laura's energy and Vivian's business wisdom, they soon have a hit on their hands with nonstop vaudeville shows, featuring an irrepressible Will Young as the obligatory gay song-and-dance man, Bertie. But the competition catches on, and when it comes time to tweak the fare, our dauntless heroine knows just what to do. Mimicking the famed Moulin Rouge in Paris, the Windmill Theater boldly decides to mount a nudie revue. This being staid London, however, certain restraints must be observed. One of Mrs. Henderson's funniest scenes has Laura invading the offices of the stodgy Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest), where she proceeds to deflect his censor's resistance to public nudity with a pledge to keep her actresses totally immobile. Thus do the Windmill's enthusiastic audiences come to behold stock-still, unclothed tableaux depicting American Indians, mermaids and Annie Oakley. As Sherman's script forcefully reminds us, Mrs. Henderson's theater never closed thereafter not even in the most dangerous days of the blitz.
Director Frears, whose edgy films include The Grifters and Dirty Pretty Things, seems to be in a more relaxed mood here, happy to honor all the conventions of backstage comedy and willing to indulge Dench. Mrs. Henderson has some dark moments, but for the most part, this is a genial Brit charmer, and the nudity is about as chaste as unclothed flesh gets. Bill Gallo