British Films Spice Up Holiday Season

If the months of summer are known for Hollywood’s attempt to bring in as much cash as possible, then it could be said that December is known for its attempt to generate as many film awards as possible.

Each year’s end brings us a slew of films parading big stars in epic performances and A-list directors making plays for that little man known as Oscar.

This year Hollywood will offer the likes of “Brokeback Mountain,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “The Producers,” “King Kong” and Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.” And, without a doubt, each one will haul in loads of praise as they hit screens over the next month.

But in addition to these Tinseltown offerings, there will come a few selections from across the pond that I’ve had the chance to catch before they take that big ship to the land of the free.

First up is “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (4.5 out of 5 stars), starring Judi Dench as a bored widow who decides to open London’s first nude theater show during the Blitz of World War II. She enlists the help of a producer, played by Bob Hoskins (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”), who is constantly at odds with her, leading to more than a little witty British banter.

This true story flows entertainingly from start to finish, thanks to a talented ensemble cast that also includes Christopher Guest of “This is Spinal Tap” and “Waiting for Guffman” fame. The screenplay is full of laughs and the music is toe-tappingly good in the old vaudeville style.

The film, directed by Stephen Frears, has a few overly melodramatic twists and sometimes lacks the depth of a potential classic, but for all its fluff, it saves itself with great laughs, stellar performances and loads and loads of blatant European nudity.

We also have “The Libertine” (4 out of 5 stars), starring Johnny Depp in a 17th-century costume drama unlike any 17th-century costume drama you’ve seen.

Like “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” it involves the city of London, the theater and characters who dare to ignore the law to do what they wish. But the similarities end there.

Depp plays the Earl of Rochester, a lord consumed with desire for drink and women. He is diseased and morally offensive, and when King Charles II (John Malkovich) calls on him to write a literary classic, he produces a story about a man named Senor Dildo.

The embarrassment to the crown only starts there and the show he puts on has to be seen to be believed.

As always, Depp creates a deeply fascinating character whose devilish prologue alone is worth the price of admission. I could go on and on about how he deserves an Oscar nomination, but since he seems to get that for about every movie he’s made lately, we’ll just move on.

“The Libertine” is a harsh film to look at, with grainy film stock and gray color schemes that couldn’t be more different from the bright and glorious cinematography of “Mrs. Henderson Presents.”

But like that movie, performances shine all around, especially from Samantha Morton and former Bond Girl Rosamund Pike.

It takes awhile for “The Libertine” to gain dramatic momentum, but once it does, you realize it was well worth the wait. Many people will be put off by the dark subject matter and nature of old English language, but fans of Depp’s work should definitely not miss him here.

Both films are worthy works of cinema that should be welcome alternatives to the Hollywood fare in the next month if you fancy something a little more continental. Fish and chips not included.