There are certain areas, figures and epochs in human history that are just about tapped, cinematically speaking. I’m not talking about romantic comedies or heist pictures, which hopefully will be made in perpetuity, but several specific subgenres that have simply been farmed to a numbing exhaustion'say, Jane Austen adaptations, or made-for-TV Elvis biopics, or the many, many manifestations of English courage in times of 20th-century war. This is not a judgment of critical worth, but of critical mass; they’re worthy, transcendent subjects all, but they’ve been filmed so many times and from so many angles that there’s a limit to the number of times audiences can be expected to find a new way to absorb them.
Take those stiff-upper-lipped Brits and their remarkable ability to outlast every offensive army in the last 50 years, for instance. Most who make these pictures go in with the best of intentions, probably seeing the uplifting storylines and the kicky costumes as an irresistible duo. But the films’ differences fade with time in the pile of movie after movie set in the same time with roughly the same tone and goals; a few years removed, it’s just plain hard to remember whether my favorite scene from An Awfully Big Adventure was actually in Bright Young Things, or whether John Malkovich reminded me of my uncle in Hope and Glory, or Empire of the Sun, or maybe The English Patient. Through no fault of the individual filmmakers, they simply bleed together into a puddle of gray skies, green fields and the posh accents of plucky middle-age women.
Mrs. Henderson Presents, the latest from director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity), probably doesn’t even realize that its greatest failing is its familiarity'something Frears has rarely been accused of breeding during his blessedly eclectic career. It’s not just treading in the well-worn ruts of Englishmen being brave in wartime but also a relatively new rut concerning uptight UK denizens promoting nudity as a wacky catharsis for endemic emotional repression (see'but don’t look directly at'The Full Monty or Calendar Girls). With so many similarities to what came before, it’s simply hard to pretend you’ll remember what’s specific about this film in six months, no matter how proficient its maps of wartime emotion might be. And after a while, all the naughty bits start to look alike, too.
You can’t blame Frears, who has never been a timid filmmaker. In fact, he sometimes seems too determined not to repeat himself when a second try at a genre probably would hone his skills (witness the deviously slick Dirty Pretty Things, which didn’t resonate to me as an ideal heir to The Grifters until a second viewing). Frears hasn’t made this picture in his career, but his fresh eyes see the same big messages and askew humor already nailed by everybody who came before him.
The Mrs. Henderson in question is an affluent, kooky London widow played by Judi Dench. With her unimpeachable, Hepburnian panache, the Dame’s character buys a run-down theater and decides to stage a vaudeville show with blustery producer Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins). When the show gets tired, Mrs. Henderson'like Marilyn Monroe and Phoebe Cates after her'decides topless young girls are the only way to properly cheer up her troubled decade. Mrs. Henderson’s transformation from a genial old lady to a canny bamboozler of censors (Christopher Guest) is just as much fun as you already expect, and the film’s tragic turns are completely unsurprising in the belligerent emotional landscape of the entire third act.
Mrs. Henderson Presents isn’t a bad film, but it was better the first time, or the second time, or the third time. The only new thing it’s got to offer is boobs'and you’ve probably seen better.