Who is Mrs Henderson?

The U3A December screening at the Lexi  was “Mrs. Henderson Presents”.

It might be churlish to criticise a film that seems to be so ‘feel good’  and in which the actors had such fun performing. A film where the age of an old woman (“nearly 70”) is irrelevant to the story.  Yet I must –  if only to understand certain features of film reception and why I feel so uncomfortable about Mrs. Henderson Presents.

When I showed the film in our Women in Film Group a few years ago, we had noted that Mrs. Henderson fitted in the category of ‘transgressive, rich, difficult, dowager’ film  stereotype.  We noted how her aged face with lines and folds and pouch under the eyes was  framed by stylish  hairdos, hats,  tiaras, jewels and silk and satins and did not detract from Judi Dench’s  expressive beauty and sprakling eyes. Her un made up face is often filmed in close up and specially in a protracted shot with young Maureen’s.   Also in the pillow talks with Lady Conway physical ageing is not used in a pejorative way. But Mrs H. as a character was not discussed at length.  I noted at the time that certain scenes and their significance were not recalled after the viewing.   Today the audience perceived the film as ‘feel-good’ and Mrs. Henderson as a charming determined character albeit a bit difficult.   ‘I enjoyed every minute of it’ was one of the comments. ‘ A mixture of fact and fantasy’ was another. A most telling one was ‘when I looked at Mrs. Henderson I saw Judi Dench’ and yet another: “Was Mrs. Henderson pimping?”, “Van Damm is two dimensional”. These comments raise important points. Again I will restrict myself to the representation of the old woman, and how it affects this  mixture of three Hollywood genres:   musical, comedy and melodrama.

The feel-good effect : the critics in their vast majority and specially the American ones were delighted by the film. They nearly all centered around Judi Dench’s performance.  Words like : funny, naive charm, marvelously enjoyable, Hoskins and Dench have terrific chemistry together, it offers a feel-good experience, an absolute delight from start to finish, one of the wittiest comedies to come our way, genial naughtiness, humour and warmth, good clean fun, a goodie goodie film.   There were some dissenting critics and they focused mainly on the lack of structure of the story ‘the film haphazard and uneven structure’, the sentimentality: ‘falseness and sentimentality take over completely when war breaks out’ (Philip French). But Mrs. Henderson’s as a character is  mentioned  in any detail by only one reviewer : ‘She emerges as a grieving woman who has suffered multiple bereavements, a do-gooder motivated by complex reasons.’  (Sukhdev Sandhu in  the Telegraph). Mrs. H’s complex motivations are not explored further in this review although there are scenes in the film that do delve into the darker sides of her character.  These emerge in the drama part of the film as an attempt at deeper characterisation and motivations.

Stephen Frears on the  Freedom to Embellish the Story: “When you make a film about real people it’s always, you know, you’re always more circumscribed in some ways. So it’s better to be able to use your imagination and invent the whole thing. There’s a  bit of each, really, in this case.”  The woman Frears and his scriptwriter created however is unconvincing.  Frears: “Mrs. Henderson is the most appalling right-wing woman, an absolute shocker. But I respect defending the indefensible”. Hoskins: “Mrs. Henderson is three things: she’s charming, cheeky and an absolute cow”.

When I look at Mrs. Henderson I see Judi Dench : In he first two thirds of the film Mrs. H is a ‘feisty’ widow who on the death of her husband  flouts the conventions of her upper class background and behaves outrageously.  Sherman the scriptwriter modelled her interactions with the manager of the theatre, Van Damm, on the Hepburn/Tracy marital rows of the Hollywood comedies. The dialogue is acerbic, funny and provide an entertaining romantic tension.   The exchanges between Mrs. H and Lady Conway also poke fun at the upper classes “Mrs.H: ‘But I am nearly 70’ – Lady C. : “But you are so very rich, one cancels the other”.  One cannot but be seduced by this determined, brave, beautiful, manipulative widow who can, with a smile and a flash of her sparkling eyes make you forgive her faux pas. The one indefensible incident in this part of the film is Mrs. H. behaviour towards Mrs. Van Damm  – but this is soon forgotten.  One critic said ” However extraordinary an actor, she (Dench) may be, she cannot conceal the obvious fact that she’s having the time of her life here.  Isn’t that delicious”. (Village Voice).

Was Mrs. H. pimping or matchmaking? The viewer has  been led to settle into  a musical comedy mode where Judi Dench is the main seducing protagonist. However the Mrs. H that  Frears offers us in the war episodes  is different. But for some reason Mrs. H less attractive traits are completely ignored by the viewers, be they critics or general audience. This part of the film, Frears  tells us on the DVD,  is inspired by the Hollywood melodramas of the time. Melodramas do deal with grief and desire and loss of youth in older women.  These deep emotions are on screen in this film. But they leave no trace in the viewer’s consciousness.  Somehow grief,  desire, and vicarious pleasure get entangled in a most superficial way. We see Mrs. H mourn over her son’s grave in France and sympathise with Van Damm’s war losses. But we also see Mrs H gaze at the young soldiers from her seat in the theatre, spy  on them  from her car in the dark night  and pick one particular one. We see her in the dressing room where she identifies with Maureen, the  leading Windmill nude girl. In her bedroom she performs the fan dance in front of a mirror fantasising the role that Maureen plays.  She proceeds  to arrange calculatingly for the soldier to meet with Maureen and persuades her to have sex with him. What do these scenes reveal about Mrs. H. and her motives?  And is Mrs. H. innocently matchmaking to allay Maureen’s loneliness and provide a sexual experience to a young soldier about to go to the front or is she pursuing a dangerous fantasy? And how in this light  are we to interpret her speech about the Windmill girls fortifying  young men going to the front? If  Frears wanted to convey the dark side of Mrs.H, he failed. Judi Dench’s attractive personality and physical presence overpowers the insensitivity, the egotistic manipulation of others, the hypocrisy,  of the character she is supposed to portray. Maureen gets pregnant and is killed in a bombing raid.  But the show must go on and the film ends with Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins still bickering, swirling  in a romantic dance on the roof of the theatre. The titles sequences lead the audience to expect a light hearted comedy/musical and the melodrama cannot be accommodated.

The director had problems with the reception of the film as he admitted  when asked about the animated titles sequences that he commissioned  long after the film was finished. “I previewed the film. And the audience asked certain questions. And I kept thinking, “Why are you asking these questions?” They seemed completely inappropriate to the film I was making. And then it dawned on me that you have to tell them they were watching a film that took place in Fairy-land. You know, that it was one of those films over there—it wasn’t this kind—it wasn’t a realistic film. It was one of those films. And once you told them that, they understood everything and the questions stopped. But before, they’d ask these very, very literal questions.” What were the questions asked at the previews? Were they questions about the real Mrs. H.? about the real Van Damm? about the real Windmill girls? about the death of Maureen? the reality behind ‘we never closed’?

But I also would like other questions. What exactly is the director trying to say? and what is the audience supposed to understand? Why do the viewers not perceive the complexity of Mrs H. motives? why do critics not comment on Van Damm? Questions better left to research into the reception of films…

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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2 Responses to Who is Mrs Henderson?

  1. Elizabeth Markson says:

    I’m doing research on older women in film and enjoy hearing others’ thoughts and suggestions. I’m hoping to put together a book…have written an article or two in obscure journals…

    • rinaross says:

      I believe it is your work that was important to our group when we studied the representation of old women in British Films 1997-2006 (see under resources). Please send me the references to your articles in the ‘obscure journals’.
      Is Mrs. Henderson Presents of special interest to you? I would be glad to share… thoughts and suggestions…

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