Mrs Henderson Presents (12A) <br/> Flightplan (12A)

A very British scandal
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The Independent Culture

Stephen Frears's new movie embraces so many of the favourite constituents of British cinema that one could almost imagine it were designed by a committee. Wartime drama? Check. A chaste romance with strong character acting? Check. A celebration of British pluck in adversity? Check. Full frontal nudity? Why, of course! Ever since The Full Monty blew the box-office roof away eight years ago, the idea of shedding one's clothes for your art has become a strange article of faith among home-grown film producers; it's as if we've never quite recovered from giggling at our first Donald McGill postcard.

And the only thing more certain to pique native taste than tit'n'bum is tit'n'bum in - and out of - period costume. Mrs Henderson Presents is based on the true story of a celebrated coup de théâtre in 1930s London. Judi Dench plays Laura Henderson, a well-to-do sixtysomething lady who's been recently widowed and now lacks a purpose in life. Her aristo friend (Thelma Barlow) suggests a hobby - embroidery, perhaps, or a spot of charitable work ("Once your husband dies it's quite permissible to help the poor"), but when these prove dead ends she decides to take a punt on a disused theatre in Soho, The Windmill. Knowing nothing of the practicalities she hires a general manager, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), to run the place, and then can't keep from interfering in it.

This conflict, between the enthusiastic amateur and the seen-it-all professional, should be the source of dramatic sparks: will Mrs Henderson nurture some wrong-headed ambition to tread the boards, obliging Van Damm to tread on her dreams? In a word, no. It's simply a case of her being a busybody and him banning her from rehearsals, thus paving the way for a couple of lame sight gags as she disguises herself, first as a Chinese matron, then as a polar bear, to spy on him. They bicker constantly, but in that familiar way of a couple who know they can't live without each other. Unfortunately, Martin Sherman's script doesn't offer them much in the way of firecracker dialogue. She twitters and drawls like some stage dowager, while he huffs and puffs about how impossible she's being. It's not exactly All About Eve.

To counter a drastic plunge in revenues, Mrs Henderson "presents" an idea as simple as it is eye-catching: naked girls on stage. But how will this ever get past the notoriously prim gaze of the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest), whose job it is to censor stage productions? Well, no problem if, like our well-connected heroine, you happen to be on first-name terms with the Lord Chamberlain ("Oh Tommy, don't be silly") and can persuade him that nudity has a respectable precedent in the tableaux and sculptures of antiquity. He grants the Windmill a licence, on the condition that the naked girls stay absolutely still - and provokes a stampede into the stalls. As an illustration of British compromise (prudishness versus titillation, censorship versus "fair play") this is potent, but once the clothes start coming off then the film itself begins to look pretty exposed.

It could have been turned into a musical, but Frears has no form in that department, and casting the pop star Will Young as the theatre's leading performer and choreographer suggests it wasn't ever a serious option.

By the time it's nearly over you realise that Mrs Henderson Presents is a collection of minor plots that haven't quite the legs, as it were, to carry over to a major one. Dench enjoys herself as the grande dame, which is fair enough, and Hoskins gets to show his bits, which isn't, but one is never persuaded that there is sufficient complexity in their partnership to sustain the movie. It's a serious disappointment from a director whose best films (Gumshoe, The Grifters, Dirty Pretty Things) have encouraged us to expect a good deal more.

For about an hour the mid-air thriller Flightplan is terrific. Jodie Foster plays an aeronautics engineer who boards a plane carrying her six-year-old daughter and a heavy heart: she is taking the body of her recently deceased husband from Berlin to the US. Having drifted off to sleep she wakes up to find her daughter is missing; worse, nobody on the aircraft - passengers or flight crew - can recall seeing the girl at all. So either Foster is going mad from her bereavement or else there's some bizarre kidnap scenario at work. But how can you kidnap someone in an airliner at 35,000 feet?

We find out, though not before the anguished mom has created an almighty turbulence in the cabin and put about 20 years on the poor old captain (Sean Bean). This is air rage like you've never seen before, and answers very directly to post-September 11 anxieties about in-flight safety. At one point Foster tries to incriminate an Arab passenger, around whom the whole plane suddenly gathers like a lynch-mob. The director, Robert Schwentke, uses his camera superbly, gliding down the aisles, out of economy-class and into the guts of the plane, which is revealed to be like the TV Times: I never knew there was so much in it!

Foster's face offers an eloquent register of distress, then of steely determination, so we can forgive her for recycling the same moves that she made in Panic Room. Better still is Peter Sarsgaard as the air marshal whose shifty, hooded eyes keep you guessing as to whether he's friend or foe. Eventually the wheels come off the plot, along with the tail, the wings and the undercarriage, but for that exhilarating first hour I'd trade in all my air-miles.

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