The late Bob Hoskins finds an ideal foil in Judi Dench for this slight but amusing BBC drama, which takes the war-time action of the Windmill strip-club in London’s Soho as its subject. Stephen Fears has made entrepreneurial duos something of a speciality in films like My Beautiful Launderette, and Mrs Henderson lovingly recreates the milieu in which Vivian Van Damm and Laura Henderson kept their club open despite the bombs falling outside. Popular singer Will Young croons a couple of vintage songs including The Girl In The Little Green Hat, and Christopher Guest has a neat turn as Lord Cromer. Frears handles the nudity with taste; the aim is nostalgia rather than exploitation, and Mrs Henderson is about as genteel a film about stripping as might be imaginable.
Steve Coogan is a fairly significant player in the UK comedy scene, but finding worldwide vehicles for his talents has resulted in minor roles in funny films such as Tropic Thunder and The Other Guys, and leading role misfires in unlovable fare like Hamlet 2 and Around The World in 80 Days. Coogan scored something of a breakthrough with Philomena, adapting (with Jeff Pope) BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith’s The Lost Child of Philomena Lee as an international road movie, playing Sixsmith himself and with Judy Dench as Lee, a mother searching for his missing son. Coogan uses much of the same two-handed patter which made his TV show with Rob Brydon, The Trip, so entertaining, but doesn’t cop out of the criticism of religion, and specifically the Catholic church, that the story demands. Coogan and Dench do well with their roles under the direction of Stephen Frears, and there’s plenty of funny lines and amusing situations (Lee’s fascination with Big Momma’s House) on the way to an unsurprisingly tear-stained finale that casts Sixsmith in a surprisingly unfavourable light.
Adapting a epistolary novel is no easy task; the Choderlos de Laclos novel taken on by writer Christopher Hampton for his stage success explores a complex narrative from a number of different points of view, with no narrator and a series of deceptive letters instead. Although Milos Forman’s Valmont was underrated, Stephen Frears does a pin-sharp job with this period film, with Glenn Close a scheming Madame de Merteuil, Michelle Pfeiffer an innocent caught in the crossfire, and John Malkovich sporting several wigs at once as the playboy the Vicomte de Valmont. Uma Thurman, Keanu Reeves and Peter Capaldi all contribute neat work, and the labyrinthine ways in which the characters snare each other, and eventually themselves, makes for a classy, engrossing romp through sexual misadventure.
Fans of Stephen Frears’ Academy-award winner the Queen should be aware that it’s a sequel of sorts; he previously cast Michael Sheen as Tony Blair in this television drama, which was also written by Peter Morgan. The Deal doesn’t have quite the same international appeal; the subject is a more local affair, and concerns the ‘deal’ between PM Blair and his deputy Gordon Brown (David Morrissey) , a piece of power-broking that reputedly kept Brown from power and cemented Blair’s own position in the history books. A political roman a clef, The Deal is an absorbing drama about a subject that may be unfamiliar to audiences outside the UK, well acted and unafraid to speculate on the private motivations of famous men.
The directorial debut of Stephen Frears, Gumshoe is a clever post-modern take on the detective genre, a passion project for star Albert Finney. He plays Eddie Ginley, a bingo-caller from Liverpool with a penchant for Elvis, comedy, Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. His relationship with his brother William (Frank Finlay), who is married to Eddie’s ex (Billie Whitelaw), inspires him to place a small ad and become a gumshoe, but his investigation leads him over his head in arms dealing and murder. Frears captures a strong sense of late 60’s Liverpool, and there’s a roll-call of support from Wendy Richards, Fulton Mackay and Maureen Lipman, plus some ingeniously brisk dialogue from Neville Smith that both captures the casual racism of the time and sends up the detective genre with knowingness.
Stephen Frears has made a virtue of highlighting unusual double-acts, from the gay couple in My Beautiful Launderette to the theatre-managers in Mrs Henderson Presents. Peter Morgan has done the same with Frost/Nixon and Rush, and the double-team works beautifully in this study of how Britain reacted to the death of Princess Diana. On one hand, The Queen displays a stiff upper lip and wants to keep her grieving private, while prime minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) is media savvy enough to know that there’s political capital to be made from the nation’s mourning,, and a banana skin in wait for anyone who doesn’t toe the line. Playing a character who is constantly in the public eye, Helen Mirren is remarkable as The Queen, capturing the mannerisms but also suggesting the inner turmoil of a monarch who has to take seriously the demands of her job. Those who observe the UK political scene will find much to amuse in the depiction of both the royal family and the Labour party in this witty yet empathetic drama.