We must be cautious about too much frivolity. The Windmill is a very serious business.
— Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins)
Mrs. Laurie Henderson is not the dry aristocrat Judi Dench often plays. She’s “old money,” yes, and comfortable in her upper-crust, 1930s London estate, but age and wealth haven’t dulled her tongue or tempered her personality. She’s feisty and independent, yet after her husband’s death she feels adrift. As she puts it in the opening funeral scene of Mrs. Henderson Presents, “I’m bored with widowhood.”
Her friend Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow) recommends the accepted pastimes of the leisure class: learning to embroider, taking a lover, or supporting a charity. “Once your husband dies, it’s quite permissible to help the poor,” she confides. Mrs. Henderson, not one for embroidery and too ribald for the charity circuit, takes a less conventional path: she buys a theater.
Knowing nothing about managing a theater, she enlists the help of Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), a well-respected Dutch Jew who suggests a nonstop musical revue. The ensuing success allows Mrs. Henderson to showcase her newfound concern for the “delightful creatures” employed in her theater. She toasts them to her friends, and in explaining her part in alleviating England’s employment crisis, confuses breadlines with “milk lines.”
She, like many of the rich, is a little divorced from reality. (She, like Paris Hilton, carries a small dog with her.) Free from the concerns of material need, she flits from the theater to her estate, content to play patron and chatter with Lady Conway about her developing crush on Van Damm. She warns him, “I’m not simply frivolous, you know, and I don’t want to ever, ever be taken for granted.” In this aspiration, she is the synchedoche of Mrs. Henderson Presents. As she wants to be taken seriously, so does the film, as commentary on the role of Art during wartime, rather than a confection of British drollery and outsized musical numbers.
With the revue’s success comes imitation, and soon London is flooded with similar shows. As the Windmill’s fortunes slide, Mrs. Henderson suggests another radical idea: her show will be all-nude. She cajoles the London censor, Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest), into allowing it on one condition: the nudes remain motionless. His notion of Art is Renaissance nudes hanging in a museum; as long as Mrs. Henderson doesn’t challenge that definition, she’s free to do as she pleases.
Soon the Windmill is casting for the perfect “British nipples.” Van Damm coaxes the young ladies into disrobing by comparing their God-given bodies to Bottocellis. When Mrs. Henderson asks about the girls’ treatment, they respond that Van Damm “treats us as what we are artists!” The film sets off every use of the word “art” with quotation marks, as if a punch line.
But once the newsreels blare, “HITLER INVADES FRANCE,” the war descends like a shroud over Mrs. Henderson Presents, and lower-case “art” becomes platonic “Art.” Van Damm plays a stunt-double Churchill who rouses his troupe with the cry of, “Of course, we all have our war duties as well as our theatrical duties.” The Windmill transforms from a nude review into everything that’s good and true about Britain during the Blitz. The boys stream in for a last glimpse of beauty before being shipped off to the front; the ladies do their part by being beautiful and defiant. When a buzz bomb leaves the stage shaking, nude Maureen (Kelly Reilly) breaks her tableaux to proudly flip the “V for Victory” sign to the roaring crowd.
Lord Chamberlain responds differently: once the bombs start to fall, he dismisses theater as a “frivolous distraction” and orders the Windmill closed. His argument looks forward to Theodor Adorno’s oft-abused axiom, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” If art provides only distraction, an easy way of turning our gaze from such brutality, can we call it anything other than “barbaric,” or morally irresponsible?
Lord Chamberlain’s complaint also echoes the “End of Camelot” that came with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the post-9/11 “death of irony.” For those who buy the argument, every fresh horror thrusts us into a harsher world with no room for anything but survival. And yet we keep returning to ironic, lower-case, frivolous art, not because it distracts, but because it transcends mere survival. As C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Four Loves,” “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
The Windmill, with its live nude girls, “has no survival value,” but it sustains life. Art stands as a challenge to a war-torn, bleak world, not a distraction from it. As Mrs. Henderson says, when Lord Chamberlain threatens to close her theater, “If we are to ask our young men to surrender their lives, we should not ask them to surrender joy — or the possibility of joy.” That possibility, after all, is the promise of art.