It may be a horrible cliché to describe Judy Dench as “charming,” but as I took in this eminently watchable Stephen Frears film, that word kept popping into my head. Add Bob Hoskins as curmudgeonly theater manager Vivian Van Damm and you’re halfway home.
The story of the Windmill Theatre is one of its time and place — London England in the 1930s and 40s, stiff upper-lipping its way through a depression and Nazi aerial assault. After society matron Laura Henderson buries her husband, she grieves, becomes bored and stumbles upon an abandoned theater in Soho, which she decides to buy — all in quick succession. It’s a bit too quick actually, as Frears seems to be chomping through the drier edges of the story to get to its sweet centre. Once Hoskins and Dench cross paths, we know why.
From the beginning they clash with the intensity of two beasts unwilling to give up any ground on any issue, including Mrs. Henderson’s bright idea to put on a nude revue. Their growing affection and respect for one another could have devolved into unpardonable romantic comedy clichés, but alas no.
In what’s presumably a faithful rendering of the actual events, the relationship between the married Van Dam and the widowed Mrs. Henderson, remains platonic, if not without desire — albeit sadly unrequited.
The musical performances pierce through the gray wartime realities, and combined with the porcelain-skinned English lasses form an irresistible period tableau. Lurking in the background is the specter of death for young soldiers and London’s vulnerable citizens. It may all sound somewhat hackneyed and perhaps even trite here on the page, but Hoskins and Dench do what great performers have always done — convince an audience an old act is brand new.
Opens December 9