This film is the kind of film I love. Its the type of movie you least expect to enjoy and it instead surprises the hell out of you in just how good it is. Mrs. Henderson Presents is also interesting in that it covers a little-known aspect of World War II, namely the history of the popular Windmill Theater in London, a musical revue theater featuring nude women similar to Paris’ Moulin Rouge.

Mrs. Henderson Presents tells the story of eccentric recent widow Mrs. Laura Henderson (Judi Dench), who purchases the Windmill Theater as a post-widowhood hobby. She hires Mr. Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), an autocratic theater manager, to run the theater for her. In 1937 the two begin a musical variety show, but after other London theaters copy their successful formula, they lose money. To save the theater, Mrs. Henderson comes up with the idea of having their shows feature nude women, which was unheard of in London at the time. World War II begins and London suffers through German Luftwaffe bombings. However, because the theater is underground, the audiences and performers remain safe, ensuring the continuation of the theater as it gains in popularity during the wartime years.

The film is graced by the presence of two powerhouse actors in Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins. Their performances and chemistry form the core of Mrs. Henderson Presents and they make this film successful. Judi Dench is in top form here as she always seems to be in anything she plays. Having always lived a life of luxury, she isn’t privy to the realities of the world other than the death of her son in World War I. Her purchase of the Windmill Theater is merely a hobby instead of a way to make a living, which would be most people’s reason for buying such a property. She is fiercely independent and believes in the strength of her convictions, which include her ideas of how the theater should be run.

As you can imagine, Mrs. Henderson’s headstrong attitude clashes with Mr. Van Damm’s managerial duties of the Windmill Theater. A veteran of the London theater scene, Van Damm knows the industry and what audiences like. Despite being his boss, Van Damm prefers to run the theater without any interference from Mrs. Henderson, which unfortunately for him, is not possible.

Much of the film’s charm lies in the relationship between Van Damm and Laura Henderson. They squabble most of the time, but there is an underlying respect between the two characters and sometimes even more than that. The complexity of their business and personal relationship is perfectly portrayed by Dench and Hoskins and you comfortably settle into the lives of these characters. A sign of how good these actors are is how quickly you care about the welfare of their characters and the continuance of their relationship.

Mrs. Henderson Presents is a beautiful looking movie. The film is full of rich, warm colors, which gives the time period a sense of nostalgia. The look is also reflective of the subject matter of the film, which explores the cheerful, musical variety theater world in London. I didn’t care so much for the song and dance numbers as none were very memorable, but this film isn’t meant to be a musical so I was ok with not being grabbed by the musical sequences. Overall, I was impressed by the production design and costumes of the movie, reminding me of an old Hollywood style. I realized how little of this style we see in today’s films, which opt for a more realistic, sterile look.

Mrs. Henderson Presents will take you by surprise and its a film deserving of an audience (it didn’t do very well at the box office even though it was critically praised and it received Golden Globe and Oscar nominations). You don’t have to be a fan of musicals (I am not) to enjoy this movie. The time period, the story, and the performances make this film one of the few surprises I have seen this holiday season on DVD.