Mrs. Henderson Presents

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Nanny McPhee

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        I've paired these two apparently dissimilar films because, even though one is about an old woman running a nude theatre show, and the other is a riff off of Mary Poppins, they are both vanity films made for and by their famous British stars. And while both have some entertaining moments generated by the high-powered actors, the movies themselves are very slight efforts. The first, Mrs. Henderson Presents, was created so that its star, Judi Dench, could have a nice starring role that she can sink her teeth into at age 71. Dench, who is in the title role, plays a recently widowed woman whose husband has left her a decrepit theatre in London. She decides to reopen the theatre and hires a guy named Vivian (Bob Hoskins) to run it. The reopening coincides with the Blitz in London during World War II and Dench comes up with the idea of a nude tableaux to show the soldiers a good time. She is doing this to honor of her son who was killed in World War I before he even had a girlfriend. Dench gets permission for the nude show by telling the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest) that the girls wouldn't move while on stage. So, Dench and Hoskins hire a bunch of lovelies (Kelly Reilly, Natalia Tena et al.) who, of course, all have hearts of gold. The second film, Nanny McPhee, is an adaptation of the Nurse Matilda children's books. I don't know why Nurse Matilda turned into Nanny McPhee but Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay and stars in the title role. This film tells the story of a man (Colin Firth) whose wife has recently died and who is now trying to care for his many children (Thomas Sangster et al.). As the action begins, Nanny #17 is running in terror from these adorable yet nasty kids. Only the cook (Imelda Staunton) and the scullery maid (Kelly Macdonald) remain. Firth is at his wits end and he is having trouble making ends meet with his job as a funeral director. The family is supported by his dead wife's aunt (Angela Lansbury) who demands that Forth remarry immediately, so he decides to marry a repulsive widow (Celia Imrie). Just when the chaos is about to reach epic proportions, Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) appears to calm things down. McPhee is ugly as sin with a big nose, warts and a snaggle-tooth. But like Gandalf, she carries a magic cane.

        Mrs. Henderson Presents gives Judi Dench a chance to do what she does best, which is to be Judi Dench. She has famously shown this off by stealing every scene she appears in, even in quite small roles such as M in the James Bond movies, Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love and Lady Catherine de Bourg in Pride & Prejudice. And she is nominated again this year for an Oscar for this new role. In Mrs. Henderson Presents, Dench plays a slightly softer character but still rough around the edges. But the movie itself, like the girls onstage, is stripped down to nothing. Even the presence of Bob Hoskins didn't generate enough interest to keep me awake until the end of the movie. Bob even goes so far as to go full frontal with the girls but, luckily, the light levels were low. Otherwise, the movie would have been rated NC-17. Hoskins and Dench put their normal high energy into Mrs. Henderson Presents but it has nowhere to go. Once the plot premise has been established, not much happens the rest of the way. At one point, the film threatens to get interesting when a lovestruck Dench finds out that Hoskins is married, but the subject is never mentioned again. The rest of the cast is OK. Kelly Reilly is good as the main stripper with a heart of gold who is doomed, according to the Greek tragedy playbook, when she gets into trouble with a boy. She is accompanied onstage by Natalia Tena, soon to be much more famous when she appears as my favorite character, Nymphadora Tonks in Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. Dench's best friend is played by Thelma Barlow who appeared for many years as Mavis on Coronation Street. The weirdest casting choice is American Christopher Guest (This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show) as the Lord Chamberlain.

       Nanny McPhee may be a good children's film. It has lots of scenes of food fights and worms in sandwiches, which may be hilarious for the under-10 crowd. But Nanny McPhee has little appeal for the accompanying adults beyond its stellar cast. The cast is amazing: Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Imelda Staunton, Angela Lansbury, Derek Jacobi (I Claudius), Kelly Macdonald (Gosford Park), Celia Imrie (Calendar Girls) and Thomas Sangster. Thompson, Firth and Sangster all appeared together in Love Actually. Nanny McPhee has the same retro message as Love Actually that men are better off marrying secretaries and maids. Sangster was very cute as the little boy in love in Love Actually and he's cute again here. Staunton was nominated for an Oscar last year for Vera Drake, and will soon be seen in the plum role of Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. But all of this star wattage is pretty much wasted unless you've been waiting to see these actors covered with colorful food products. Mostly, I found Nanny McPhee boring. The only possibly interesting plot was to see her taming the out-of-control kids but she does that in the first 5 seconds and she cheats by using magic to do it. The rest of the movie is devoted to steering the hapless Firth away from the widow and toward the scullery maid. I was looking at my watch. I also wonder about Nanny McPhee as a children's film. Not only are the children actively trying to murder Firth's fiancee, but there are several scenes in the mortuary with dead bodies lying around. The film sometimes has an Addams Family feel to it.

       These films show that even those great British character actors, that I love to see, can flounder around like everyone else when there are no interesting plots or characters. It's still great to see Dench, Hoskins, Thompson, Firth etc etc but I wish they would also line up some good screenwriters and directors.