January 2008

Mrs Henderson (Judi Dench) is a recent, very rich and somewhat eccentric widow of 1937 who decides to take up theatre owning as a more interesting occupation than embroidery or po-faced charity work. When the initial success of the venture fades, she suggests female nudity as a way to revitalise ticket sales and manages to persuade the Lord Chamberlain to agree, as long as the nudes do not move. So far, so blah.

The good news is that the film could be worse. There are various layers of themes and sub-plots, which is just as well, since the main plot – the development of the relationship between Mrs Henderson and her theatre manager (Bob Hoskins) – is somewhat understated. The dancers and nudes are not stupidly thin. Better, there are no het coupling happy-ever-afters. And Judi Dench is so wonderfully good at playing stubborn batty old women. I want to be a stubborn batty old woman when I grow up.

But there are certainly things not to like.

First, there is Mrs Henderson’s grand speech near the end of the film, intended to save the theatre from closure under wartime regulations about too many people congregating together. She claims to be doing it all for The Soldiers, Our Boys. Because Heaven forfend that, like her own boy Alec, they should be sent to their deaths without having seen a real woman naked.

It isn’t clear whether we should believe her about this. The story to date suggests not, because she apparently bought the theatre on a whim and suggested taking the performers’ clothes off only as a way of boosting audience numbers. And Mrs Henderson is a great dissembler, to put it politely*. Yet somehow you do believe her. You believe that this is, if not the purpose with which she set out, at least a justification for her actions in which she sincerely believes and with which the audience is intended to sympathise. That the mere sight of female nakedness will bring joy of a kind that no soldier should be denied.

(* In one entertaining scene, she out and out lies to her friends in a speech inviting them to the opening night, explaining that her dead husband was very keen on supporting stage artists, that the whole thing is done to honour his memory.)

About that – doing it for the boys. It is the same ideal that motivates her in other things. There is a key sub-plot in which Mrs Henderson engineers a romance between one of the show’s stars, Maureen (Kelly Reilly), and a young soldier. Mrs Henderson is moved to pity by the sweet young boy on his way to the Front, and wants Maureen to show him a little compassion. She, despite her misgivings and wariness about any kind of falling in love, falls for him anyway, becomes pregnant and then gets a letter from him, saying that he is going back to his girlfriend… And so it goes. She rushes out of the building just before an air raid starts and is killed at once. All very tragic, but why is Mrs Henderson held to blame right until the end of the film? OK, so she rather naively fell for the boy’s sweet charms and urged Maureen to go out with him. She might possibly be accountable for the fact that Maureen got carried away and fell pregnant, given what she knew about Maureen’s tendency to go falling in love with people at the drop of a hat. But how on earth can she be blamed for Maureen’s death? It’s bizarre.

I’d heard some good things about this film, which is the only thing that would have induced me to watch a comedy about strippers in the first place. But ultimately it all came down to female bodies and male pleasure.

Entertaining – yes. Uplifting – decidedly not.


We drank and threw our cups into the water. She leaned on the rail, her face half in the light, half in the shadow, as perfect as a statue. The ruby earring flared as the sun struck through it, and her white shirt billowed out in the freshening breeze. That is how I will remember her.

Set in the early part of the eighteenth century, this is the story of two young women escaping disaster by joining a pirate crew together. Nancy Kington is the 15 year old daughter of a Bristol trader on the brink of ruin. When he dies, her brothers ship her to Jamaica to be sold as the wife of a black-hearted man who makes her flesh crawl. Minerva Sharpe is a young house slave in Nancy’s Jamaican home, who becomes her friend and then finds herself in grave danger from the equally cruel overseer of the Kington sugar plantation. The story has everything – pirating, swashbuckling, treasure, danger – and the impossible search for a place to be: a place of safety, a place of dignity, a place to belong.

A great novel for young (and not so young) women, spoiled only by the author’s insistence on running the story through with heterosexual romance. Oh well…