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Now Showing: Mrs. Henderson Presents

An endearing feature of English culture is that it's able to treat sexuality without leering. For the English, this universal human preoccupation is many things -- comedy, health, passion, dilemma. But it is not the overheated vulgarity that in America is usually presented with ghastly piano music in the background.

Mrs. Henderson Presents, a film about the only theatre that remained open throughout World War II in London and that offered tableaus of naked girls is a good example of healthy intelligence on the subject. That of course is in part because Judi Dench is herself the essence of healthy intelligence. As Mrs. Henderson, a wealthy widow, who decides to buy and refurbish a rundown theatre, she offers us the upper-class eccentricity that's in danger of becoming a cliché but which nonetheless continues to charm. It's ongoing appeal may be because there actually are women in England like Mrs. Henderson. The whole business is not just made up.

Here Ms. Dench is ably assisted by Bob Hoskins, as Vivian Van Damm, her Jewish theatre manager. They fight all the way the through, but the conflict is always underpinned by affection. The scene at the very end of the movie when they dance on the roof of the theatre while a performance goes on below, arguing as they twirl, is close to the edge of sentimentality. But the two of them together are good enough to pull it off.

One may think that since nudity is so prominent in the film that it's the main thing. But that would be a mistake. This is a movie about patriotism in the classic World War II, London during the blitz fashion. That too is a hoary tradition. It reaches its high point when the theatre is rocked by German bombs, sending everyone tumbling and crouching in fear until one of the actresses rises steadfastly in the altogether and gives the finger to the Luftwaffe above. And then the show goes on.

Okay, it may be a bit much, but it's a good bit much and it would take a cold nature to leave a movie house after seeing it without a warm feeling in the heart.



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