''Mrs. Henderson Presents" is a very old hat, and Judi Dench wears it beautifully.
One of the first movies released by Harvey and Bob Weinstein since the two mini-moguls left Disney/Miramax to set up The Weinstein Company, ''Henderson" is a rose tossed to a longtime Miramax contingent: American moviegoers who like their tasteful British fare served with a frisson of naughtiness. Indeed, the three key elements of arthouse comfort-food are here: a British Dame, a period setting, and breasts. That this tale of a high-spirited dowager who shocked her Depression-era peers by staging nude theatrical revues is based on a true story is just an additional dollop of caviar.
Dench makes Laura Henderson an adorable and appealing figure: a wealthy London grande dame in her late 60s who wants nothing more than to have fun after her stodgy (and unseen) husband passes away at the start of the film. The usual ladies' charitable organizations bore her blind, so, to the delight and consternation of her circle of upper class twits, she buys the down-at-the-heels Windmill Theatre in Soho.
Mrs. Henderson hires the dapper theatrical producer Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to run the place -- is he a Jew? How colorful! -- and the two find such success with their nonstop program of ''revue-deville" shows that other theaters cut into the profits with imitations. The light bulb then goes on over Mrs. H.'s head: ''Why don't we get rid of the clothes?"
She says this as if she had personally just discovered nudity -- well, it is England -- and Van Damm hastens to tell her that performers in the altogether would never pass muster with the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest). Luckily Mrs. Henderson has known that august official since he was a boy -- she insists on calling him ''Tommy" -- and patiently explains to him that ''you're thinking bosoms and I'm thinking breasts. The difference is in your soul." She is allowed to go forward, so long as the women are presented in artistic tableaux and don't move.
The Windmill proceeds to become very, very popular.
''Mrs. Henderson Presents" makes the same middlebrow bargain: It promises sex under the saving grace of good taste. One quickly realizes, though, that the movie will be as erotic as a kippered herring, and, indeed, a comic shot of Hoskins in the raw is as scandalous as it gets.
Instead, director Stephen Frears gives us a sweet, old-fashioned study of time and place and one unsinkable woman. Laura Henderson was thoroughly unique -- it's apparently true that Van Damm exiled the meddlesome owner from her own theater more than once, and that Mrs. Henderson would sneak back in variously disguised as a gypsy and a polar bear -- and Dench knows she has lucked onto a honey of a part.
There's no cutesy-Helen-Hayes doddering to her performance but rather a raging curiosity about the world after a lifetime of crushing good behavior. Mrs. Henderson's a snob but an open-minded one, and her kindness to the ''girls" -- including Kelly Reilly as the beautiful problem child of the troupe -- goes a long way to keeping the Windmill whirring all the way through World War II (it was the only London theatre to stay open throughout the war years).
Mrs. H. isn't above lust, nor petulant vanity when it's not returned, and she has a knowledge of loss in the bargain. Her quiet conversations at the grave of her son, killed in the Great War, are the film's most moving scenes, not least because Frears keeps his camera at a respectful distance. This is the director's first film since ''Dirty Pretty Things" in 2002, and the man who once made such edgy fare as ''My Beautiful Laundrette," ''The Grifters," and ''High Fidelity" can barely be glimpsed beneath this movie's professional veneer. The only constant is Frears's love of characters who have little use for convention.
By contrast, ''Mrs. Henderson Presents" is a deeply conventional movie, but a wholly enjoyable one. Nothing rude is allowed to taint the film's vision of proper English titillation, not because that might disturb moviegoers but simply because Mrs. Henderson wouldn't have it. The movie sees the world as she saw it: an inconveniently awful place blessed with pockets of beautiful whimsy.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.