Pretty things, not dirty

If nudity is a form of theater, then "Mrs. Henderson Presents" has a full repertory season of it.

I'm not just talking about the miles of exposed female flesh in this British comedy-drama, which takes its inspiration from the story of the real-life Laura Henderson, a widow who bought a rundown, West End show hall in 1937 and transformed it into a venue for au naturel performances. As explored in a handsome and energetic film written by Martin Sherman (best-known as the playwright of "Bent" and "The Boy from Oz") and directed by Stephen Frears ("Dirty Pretty Things"), nudity, like a bare stage, is an invitation to project whatever a storyteller or audience needs to see or feel.

Bored with available options open to an aristocratic woman trying to redirect energies following her husband's death, Mrs. Henderson (Judi Dench in a characteristically feisty but quietly passionate role) refurbishes a shuttered establishment and reopens it as the Windmill Theatre. Seeking artistic direction, she hires a headstrong manager, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins, in one of his best parts in years), who bans Mrs. Henderson from involvement in all creative decisions but listens to her anyway when she proposes staging shows with naked girls.

Why Mrs. Henderson would suggest such a thing, other than as an eccentric impulse to stem the Windmill's financial losses, is explored later. More immediate is the question of whether she and Van Damm can get away with it. In a particularly winning scene that illustrates the breadth of her hubris, Mrs. Henderson lobbies the government's official censor, Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest) - "Tommy," she calls him-while plying him with exotic foods in a tent she's had pitched on a public green.

There, Cromer tells her that if the disrobed actresses don't actually move, if they are blocked in a tableaux like a living painting, the experiment could work. Thus, nudity in "Mrs. Henderson Presents" begins as a flirtation with a taboo, a covert pleasure for a proper crowd that would be indignant without artistic camouflage. But before the film is over, nudity will resonate with other meanings, some iconic: a spirit of resolve and victory during the war years, the promise of a girl left behind while one trudges off to the Front. More complex is what nudity appears to mean to Mrs. Henderson herself: an element in an unfulfilled promise, a lost link in the chain of immortality.

As the most prominent of the girls, Maureen (Kelly Reilly), says at one point, it turns out the safest place to be, while she is avoiding attachments in life, is naked on a stage, where she's obscured by others' illusions. Certainly that's been true, figuratively speaking, for other characters in Frears' films: the closeted, Asian-Brit gay in "My Beautiful Laundrette," the ruthless conwoman played by Annette Bening in "The Grifters."

In many ways, too, the depth of sadness in "Mrs. Henderson Presents," with its restrained allusions to catastrophic loss and a few scenes set during the London blitz, is itself stylishly obscured by the relentlessly clipped vigor Frears brings to the action and to the terse, comic exasperation between comic foils Hoskins and Dench. What starts out looking like a frothy, distracting period piece develops some soul and mystery as it moves along.[[In-content Ad]]