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Female Trouble

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There's something that's a little too perfect, a little too precious, about a trio of director Stephen Frears and actors Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins set loose on a movie project. The combination suggests a whiff of calculation, which should be unsurprising considering that Mrs. Henderson Presents was supposed to be The Weinstein Company's marquee Oscar contender after the Weinstein Brothers' split from Miramax. (The film, which is scheduled to open this weekend, garnered only two nominations.) And yet it is this very combination that helps save the movie from being outright pitiful, playing its strengths while being oblivious to its weaknesses.

This stands in sharp contrast to another curious celebration of womanhood, writer-director Duncan Tucker's Transamerica, which fails to get by on the Oscar-nominated turn by Desperate Housewives' Felicity Huffman. More on that later.

Mrs. Henderson Presents is yet another zig in Frears' now-predictably unpredictable zig-zag canon. He is famously eclectic in his choice of subject matter; one need look no further than his previous effort, 2002's Dirty Pretty Things -- about immigrants living on the fringe in modern-day London -- to know that you never know with Frears. But what you can expect is a pitch-perfect approach to film, a sure-handed camera, a well-executed storyline that moves along at a confident pace, and intriguing if sometimes offbeat characters played by shrewdly cast actors.

And yet, this time around, Frears seems to have lost his grip a bit, apparently caught between a love letter to the musical theater (and films) of the 1930s and '40s and a yearning to celebrate womanhood both in body and spirit. Indeed, Mrs. Henderson Presents can barely pull itself out from its well of nostalgia, because after the first, breezy act, you start to wonder if there's any "there" there.

Dench's titular widow is an instinctive if pampered Londoner of the 1930s, who is more angry at her dead husband for leaving her with nothing to do than she is wistful about the empty space in her bed. Dench can play these characters of pluck and fire in her sleep (2004's Ladies in Lavender being the most recent example), and nudges her Mrs. Henderson dutifully along, first in going through the motions of widowhood (knitting, traveling) and then in finding her muse in trying to reopen the closed London theatrical venue The Windmill. A Francophone at heart for reasons we must wait to learn, Mrs. Henderson wants to not only bring musical theater back into the West End but also with a bit of swagger.

That's provided by the producer, Vivian Van Damme (Hoskins), whose ego is so large, his temperament so volatile, his ideas so firmly decided that you just know their pairing will cause sparks. Of course they will! What follows is so familiar you have to wonder why Frears is involved in this: casting auditions, backstage drama, romantic tension, artistic differences. But through it all is a neat little sub-plot about the aesthetic beauty of the female form, and, dare I say it, the best thing about Mrs. Henderson Presents (wrapped inside quaintly shot musical numbers) is the nudity. For the only way the widow's audacious idea of nudity onstage is allowed is to set the women up as tableaux -- immovable objects. And, pretentious pontifications by Van Damme aside, the onstage framing of the female nudes is breathtaking, with light and shadow dancing around the curves, the outstretched arms offering their own sensuous angles. In other words, it's a pretty thing.

Beyond that, Mrs. Henderson Presents loses most of its steam as it searches for a narrative climax, and when it arrives -- in all its literal soapbox glory that iced the Oscar nod for Dench -- you really don't care anymore.

Caring about story and character would have seemed like a mortal lock considering the Oscar-friendly premise behind Transamerica, which stars Felicity Huffman as Bree, a pre-op transsexual who's just a few more hormone shots and a major surgery away from being a complete woman. But wait! In one of the more drummed-up deux ex machina moments in recent cinema history, Bree finds out that one drunken night in college has produced a son. (Usually the experimenting in college goes the other way, but I digress.) And in more convolution, "mother" and son (whom she doesn't let in on the myriad family secrets at play here) set off across This Great Land of Ours in search of set pieces and, ultimately, "resolution."

Gag. Which means we have to sit there right along with Troubled Teen Toby and watch the road-movie clichŽs unfold: the "road trip as life journey" metaphor, the stolen-car routine, the wacky but wise strangers, the dysfunctional family (is there any other in Movieland?), etc. By the end, we wonder if we were not in the theater but in our living room, landing on Lifetime for the umpteenth time.

Huffman is fine, but aside from her familiar comic timing provides little more than what she is: a woman playing a man wanting to be a woman.

Ain't that a bitch?

Girl talk: Dancer Doris (Anna Brewster) and Mrs. Henderson - (Judi Dench) compare romantic notes in Stephen - FrearsÕ latest,  Mrs. Henderson Presents.
  • Girl talk: Dancer Doris (Anna Brewster) and Mrs. Henderson (Judi Dench) compare romantic notes in Stephen FrearsÕ latest, Mrs. Henderson Presents.

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