Dame Judi at her comedic best

'Mrs. Henderson Presents' tells the real-life story of a controversial theater owner.

This must be the season for movies featuring indomitable English widows. Last week there was Joan Plowright in "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont," and now there's the marvelously enjoyable "Mrs. Henderson Presents" starring Judi Dench.

Shortly after her husband's death, to relieve her boredom, Laura Henderson purchases a West End theater, the Windmill. With his cigars and pomaded coif, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) is the impresario she hires and immediately locks horns with. He wants complete artistic freedom, she wants to meddle. Observing the first round of auditions, she is aghast as one would-be starlet after another is promptly dismissed by Van Damm. (She likens the process to a pagan ritual).

After the Windmill's initial success dwindles, she comes up with idea of doing a show in which the girls onstage appear naked.

It's wartime in London, and between Blitzes the theater does a thriving business in servicemen. Despite its scandalous reputation, the show itself is relentlessly tasteful, in the manner of '40s Hollywood musicals: In order to stay within the bounds of official censorship, the girls pose decorously as tableaux vivants. They're nudie cuties serving the cause of king and country.

Dench's role is so smack dab in her best comic hauteur range that it would be easy to mistake what she does as simple coasting. But though there's real snap and ginger to her presence, the key to the performance is the depth of feeling beneath the imperiousness. Henderson is nobody's fool, but as the film progresses we realize that it is foolish passion she truly craves.

She finds it with Van Damm, who is as no-nonsense as she is. (Theirs is a real-life story). Van Damm and Mrs. Henderson are forever fighting each other because, of course, they recognize how much alike they are. Although Van Damm has a wife, his bickering with Mrs. Henderson mimics a marriage in which the jabs are really love pats. In one particularly ripe comic scene, an assistant interrupts the two of them at full throttle and is informed by Mrs. Henderson that "you must never interrupt a perfectly good argument."

There are many of those. Screenwriter Martin Sherman is at his brittle best in these exchanges, and director Stephen Frears keeps everything clicking. The film is supremely well crafted: Raucousness and wit slide into sadness, and yet you never feel as if you're being worked over by a bunch of slicksters. Frears, like his actors, understands that high theatricality, especially among show people, often camouflages the deepest emotions. "Mrs. Henderson Presents" is about the exhilaration of a life in the theater - a life lived at full pitch. Grade: A

Rated R for nudity and brief language.

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