I've known of this film for some time but somehow forgot I meant to see it. If you like fine acting, comedy, poignancy, music, dance, artistic nudity, and wartime London and haven't seen this one--do!
Dame Judi Dench portrays the real-life socialite Mrs Laura Henderson, wealthy and newly widowed, seeking a rewarding "hobby". So she purchases a derelict theatre, the Windmill, and hires Mr. Vivian Van Damm, played by Bob Hoskins, to operate it.
They begin with music hall fare, running continuously, but this innovation is copied by the competition.
Mrs H has a brainwave and decides to feature tableaux of nude girls, along with the song and dance typical of the 1930's.
Dench and Hoskins play off one another brilliantly--no surprise. She is feisty and flighty in the best sense, funny and naughty. He's the ideal foil. And they both harbour secrets.
Will Young, a Pop Idol with no prior film experience, is astonishingly good as a fey male "soubrette," and with uncanny skill nails the vocal and physical performances of the era.
The movie even features a real-life toff: Christopher Guest, who bears the inherited title Lord Haden-Guest, plays Lord Cromer, the Lord Chamberlain, responsible for theatrical censorship and upholding morals. I hadn't remembered that the Licencing Act--which has featured in my 18th-19th century novels--was still in force through the 20th century. Getting round its prohibitions is key to the Windmill's success, as was its continuously running performances, and lastly, keeping the doors open during the Blitz. This allowed management and performers to boast "We Never Closed." (Which resulted in an equally accurate slogan: "We Never Clothed"!)
The girls are all lovely yet, according to the "Making Of" feature, were also cast to replicate the facial and body types of the day. The songs and costumes (on stage and off) and choreography are extremely well done. Mrs Henderson was a treat for the eyes--oh, her furs, her hats, her velvets! And when one views photographs from of the real Windmill productions, it's clear a great deal of care was taken to get the look just right.
As for the scene design, we adored the re-creation of the theatre. London of the 30's and during the Blitz was faithfully depicted with CGI and sound stage artistry. There's a terrific location scene shot in St. James's Park with Buckingham Palace looming in the background.
It was interesting--and charming--that a film laden with nudity and sexual themes had absolutely no on-screen sex. The girls are seen in all their glory, which of course the Chap enjoyed. There's also a scene in which some of the men reveal their willies. But it's over in a flash (pun intended) and used to comic effect, as is all too frequent with FFMN.
Having recently enjoyed one of my re-reads of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, I was struck by how very Mitford-ian this film was in look and spirit, language and attitude and style.
Ruth & Jewel were pleased by the inclusion of Mrs Henderson's little dog, who accompanies her in nearly every scene. They were a bit peeved that the pooch was omitted from Dame Judi's Big Important Speech (brilliantly delivered) but I tried to persaude him that the doggie might've been a distraction at that particularly high-drama moment. Not sure I convinced them.
The Chap and I have a particular affinity for Dench (this is the 2nd of her films we've watched this week, the other was Mrs Brown in which she plays Queen Victoria.) Not only because of her excellent acting. Some years ago we sat near her at the theatre in London. She was there as a proud and probably nervous mother, watching her actress daughter Finty Williams make her debut on the London stage in an 18th century play.
In sum, we all recommend this movie most highly. The girls each give it "4 Paws Up," possibly because most of the time they were stretched out on their backs on the sofa, feet in the air.
Some of the original Windmill girls make an appearance in the "Making Of" feature, at a reunion party, and are interviewed about their reminscences. If you care to know the story behind the story, here are some links:
The film and its background
Windmill Theatre Online Archive