At the movies, great ladies-that is, rich ladies of a certain age who resolutely flaunt convention-are mostly British. Nobody knows why: Perhaps it's the dominance of women in Britain's monarchy that inspires such characters, or the simple fact that so many fine actresses of a certain age are British. Possessed of a British accent, a lady can be ribald, infuriatingly class-conscious and blissfully narcissistic, yet still retain an undeniable charm.

Mrs. Laura Henderson, a great lady of the war years and the subject of Mrs. Henderson Presents, is all of these things, and after John Madden's Mrs. Brown, no other actress comes more readily to mind to portray her than Judi Dench. The British actress inhabits Stephen Frears' Mrs. Henderson as blithely as she donned the British crown jewels, but here her twinkling eye and twitching upper lip divulge a mischievous and risqué femininity reminiscent of American screwball comedy.

Mrs. Henderson Presents is about a wartime widow who, when others of her class were overseeing homes for unwed mothers, bought and refurbished a derelict Soho theatre. Apparently, the real Mrs. Henderson wrote checks for liberal causes-including a home for unwed mothers-but her fortune also went to the Windmill Theatre. It was one of the few such venues in London to remain open throughout World War II. Under the guidance of Vivian Van Damm, Mrs. Henderson's theatre manager (played by the irrepressible Bob Hoskins), the Windmill's nude tableaux of showgirls were London's first, as were its nonstop shows. Part musical and part screwball comedy, in the Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn mold, Mrs. Henderson Presents is also very British in its nationalism and its unabashed tribute to the theatrical arts.

Martin Sherman's witty screenplay, a throwback to the hedonism of the 1930s, is so refreshingly uncomplicated that even the demise of one of the Windmill "girls" is treated as an occasion for transformation, inspiring the performers to go on with the show during the Blitz. Taking its cue from musical comedy, the film's production numbers explain wartime realities and further the plot: Droll songs like "Babies of the Blitz," the lyrics of which were written for the Windmill but were scored by composer/songwriter George Fenton, are mixed with such World War II classics as Benny Goodman's "Goody Goody." Excellent production design by Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski and costumes by two-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell (Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator) make Mrs. Henderson Presents a sparkling eyeful.

The repartee between Dench and Hoskins, and the uniformly excellent performances among the supporting cast, especially from newcomer Will Young as Bertie, the Windmill's crooner, and veteran Christopher Guest as Lord Cromer, are outdone only by the virtuoso direction of Stephen Frears. Frears is the sort of filmmaker who is distinguished only by fine directing, and not a penchant for a particular genre. From gritty, funny "Irish" films such as The Snapper to underappreciated masterpieces like The Grifters and The Hit, and his previous Dirty Pretty Things, a noir-like thriller, it's evident that Frears appreciates a good story. To the jaundiced eyes of a critic, however, his talent for the directorial art is evident in each of his beautifully crafted films, including this one. Frears quietly and skillfully matches style to content and, in the classic mold, mines the characters' motivations to discover the key to the plot.

From the opening credits, cleverly animated illustrations reminiscent of the 1930s, to the revelation of Mrs. Henderson's secret, Mrs. Henderson Presents is a cachou for film audiences perpetually starved for musical comedy or screwball comedy or just good comedy. Don't expect sex, satire or "upstairs/downstairs" irony, just a good song, a flash of sequins and the possibility of a wartime romance-oh, the joys of nostalgia!

-Maria Garcia