It’s an old story: aging widow is left with lots of money and little to do. She tries needlework, charity work but finds the other old biddies dreary and tiresome. She definitely doesn’t want to be like them. She visits the grave of her only son, who died at 21 years of age on some field in France, fighting the Germans. His headstone is in the middle of a neat, crowded row of other headstones, silent, mocking monuments to the “War to end all wars.”
Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) has a car, and driver, furs, an elegant estate, and all of one lady friend. She’s sharp-tongued, sharp-witted, and is often construed as rude, selfish, and eccentric. She’s also bored to tears. She desperately needs an occupation, and could really use a cause.
One day she happens upon an old, closed-down theater called “The Windmill.” It’s London, during the Depression. On a whim, she buys it. She then contracts with a local out-of-work but experienced manager, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins). They like each other because every time they meet, it’s a clash of wit and will. It gets the blood pumping for both of them.
Oh, and they hit on a formula that keeps the blood pumping for their patrons. It seems that the Windmill Theater initially enjoyed significant success with the modest innovation of the continuous musical revue. But then, all the other theaters copied them, and they were no longer unique. Sales slumped. Mrs. Henderson quite seriously suggests to Mr. Van Damm that a true innovation would be if their girls were nude. Mr. Van Damm acts shocked, but can’t help but be intrigued by the idea. He says the authorities would never allow it. It turns out that Mrs. Henderson knows the particular government administrator, and she wears him down with her bargaining technique, until he finally allows it, but only if the women in question are completely still, like a sculpture in a museum.
Well, building musical numbers around nudity is at least as old as vaudeville, and its more tawdry sister, burlesque. The challenge for The Windmill was to make the productions high-quality, the staging and lighting dazzling, and the nudity, well, statuesque.
Can this possibly be a family movie? No. Couldn’t take the Youth Group. But for the “mature adults,” this movie has something to recommend it besides mere visual display. There’s a war going on now. The Blitz has hit London. Soldiers are coming to the theater, and they are enthusiastically, but politely, enjoying the shows before they are shipped off to the front, from which they may never return. Mrs. Henderson, knowing this full well, decides that she is providing for these young men the send-off that her son never had. As for the girls, well, they can choose to remain aloof, understanding that they represent a fantasized ideal. Or, they can choose to allow the obvious interest of a soldier to be entertained, knowing that doing so subjects them to the vulnerability of real human relationships.
Judi Dench provides the part of Mrs. Henderson with just the right mixture of tartness, foolish pride, British reserve, surprising jealousy, and enviable passion. She and Mr. Van Damm manage to create an oasis of blissful tranquility in the midst of the hell that was the London blitz. It was a unique bawdy, naughty, dignified, gentrified showpiece. But unlike the Vegas shows of today, it had heart and soul, because the Brits were practicing their true grit in a time that was as trying as any could remember.
Mrs. Henderson died before the War ended, and willed the theater to Mr. Van Damm. During the entire London Blitz, the Windmill never closed, testimony to a determination to not allow those who would disrupt and destroy to intimidate. The motto seemed to be “We will not let them win by disrupting our lifestyle.” The application for today is apparent.
Questions For Discussion:
1) When is nudity “artistic,” and when is it merely prurient?
2) Have you experienced the loss of a loved one in combat? If so, did that cause you to arrive at certain convictions about what you would and would not do?
3) Are all R-rated movies unsuitable for children? Which ones are acceptable?
4)Are all PG-rated movies suitable for children? Which ones are not acceptable?
Ron Salfen is pastor of First Church, Terrell, Texas.