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Blitz Meets Brits' Tits

I'm surprised that Atlanta, a city whose gentleman's clubs have a certain national renown, hasn't made more of a fuss over Mrs. Henderson Presents. The British period piece could be billed as a "great moment in the history of naked women on stage," but though polished to a high gloss, the film remains little more than a quirky footnote.

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Judi Dench plays Mrs. Henderson, a filthy rich widow who, on a whim, buys London's shuttered Windmill Theatre to give her life purpose. With her scrappy manager (Bob Hoskins), she stages a vaudeville-style musical revue. But when they face stiff competition, Mrs. Henderson proposes they spice things up with live nudity on stage. "Nudity? In England?" exclaims a shocked listener.

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As the conservative, stuffed-shirt Lord Cromer, Christopher Guest provides some amusing moments, although the role seems about as difficult as shooting twits in a barrel. He only licenses the show on the condition that the nude performers remain motionless, thus having museum-worthy "artistic" value. The film presents the strange spectacles of 1930s song-and-dance numbers that culminate with the unveiling of immobile naked chicks, who function both as the star attractions and de facto props. (Admittedly, it's a more glitzy presentation than the average pole dance.)

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Mrs. Henderson Presents' best scenes involve Hoskins and the young women negotiating their comfort levels with clothing-free entertainment. Unlike, say, The People vs. Larry Flynt, the film avoids any substantial debate over art, sexuality and freedom of expression. Though Dench and Hoskins make superbly matched foils, their bickering feuds feel like trivial conflicts manufactured to kill time until World War II starts.

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The most shocking thing about Mrs. Henderson Presents isn't the skin on display but the revelation that director Stephen Frears, who helmed such sexually complex films as The Grifters and Dangerous Liaisons, could embrace such glib sentiment. As the Windmill stays open in defiance of the Blitz, the film's fleet, frothy qualities give way to doomed war-time romances and peep show justifications in the name of national morale. When Mrs. Henderson gives a big, plucky speech to the troops (and, by extension, Academy Award voters), you half expect her to revise Winston Churchill's famous words and proclaim, "I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, tears — and tits." Opens Jan. 13 at Tara Cinema.