The film opens on Mrs. Henderson, played by the indomitable Judi Dench as an imperviously imperious lady of vast wealth and even vaster arrogance, dealing with all the troublesome nonsense of burying her husband. Having spent most of her life in India, she seems at odds in prewar London, with the money to do practically whatever she wants but no patience for the typical pastimes of the upper-class widow (needlepoint, charities, and so on). On a lark, she decides to buy the decrepit Windmill Theater and is well into refurbishing it before realizing she doesn't really know what kind of shows she'll put on. That's where Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) comes in. A crusty old showbiz type with nice suits, big cigars, and even bigger ideas, Van Damm realizes what he's up against when Henderson announces to him, "Of course you're Jewish - look at you!"
The easygoing humor of the film's early passages is based mostly on utterances of this kind, Mrs. Henderson having been walled off from the world by her wealth and position for so long that she wouldn't know a faux pas if it stole her pearls. This being Judi Dench, of course, we know that she's not really prejudiced, simply uneducated in things involving the wider world. Perfectly matched for blustery sparring, Dench and Hoskins snort and rant at each other with delightful glee before settling on a simple division of labor: He runs the creative side of things, no questions asked, and she puts up the money.
Van Damm's big idea is to run a type of musical variety show - "what the Americans call vaudeville" and what he calls "Revudeville" - and not just a performance or two a night, but continuously, all day. Big success is signaled by a montage of happy audiences applauding the roughly-patched together segments of comedy, song, dance, and pretty girls. Then, big flop after every other theater copies them. Like a lightbulb going off above her impressively Maggie Thatcherite grey hair, Henderson decides that the girls should simply strip off their clothes to continue piquing audience interest. Licensing issues are handled by Henderson's being good chums with the relevant government official, Lord Cronmer (Christopher Guest, looking slightly lost), and an arrangement is struck: They can have the nude girls, so long as they don't move and look like classical art tableaux. London's population of young men seem very pleased by the compromise.
Not long after this development, the Blitz comes pounding on the ceiling of the theater, which, being underground, nicely doubles as a bomb shelter in the middle of performances. It's here where the film's assemblage of stock characters and clichés familiar from cozy British war-era dramas - the English rose giving her all to the boys, the sweet soldier heading off to the front, plucky Londoners standing firm against the Luftwaffe - start crowding in thickly, suffocating the mere string of plot that previously existed. Even the marvelous pairing of Dench and Hoskins, circling each other with delighted anticipation of the next argument, is practically forgotten.
The story of the Windmill should be a rousing one. Besides using pretty naked girls to warm the hearts of lonely soldiers, it was the only London theater not to close during the Blitz, the performers sleeping backstage because it was too dangerous to go home. But Stephen Frears' lazy directing and Sherman's meandering script insistently go for the safe, for the cozy, each and every time the film shows a glimmer of potential.
Don't move. Seriously.
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriter: Martin Sherman
Starring: Judi Dench as Mrs. Laura Henderson, Bob Hoskins as Vivian Van Damm, Will Young as Bertie, Christopher Guest as Lord Cromer, Kelly Reilly as Maureen, Thelma Barlow as Lady Conway, Natalia Tena as Peggy