[Screen It]

(2003) (Helen Mirren, Julie Walters) (PG-13)

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Comedy/Drama: Hoping to raise money for a good cause, several middle-aged English women decide to pose in the nude for a charity calendar.
Chris Harper (HELEN MIRREN) and Annie Clarke (JULIE WALTERS) are best friends who live in a small village in the Yorkshire Dales. Chris' husband, Rod (CIARAN HINDS), runs a floral delivery business while their son, Jem (JOHN-PAUL MACLEOD), has a growing interest in both women and drugs.

The latter pales in comparison, however, to the fact that Annie's husband, John (JOHN ALDERTON), is dying from cancer. Following his death and the earlier weeks of sitting in the uncomfortable hospital waiting room, Chris and Annie decide that they should raise money for a comfortable couch and do so through their annual Women's Institute calendar sales.

This time, however, Chris has a radical idea. Rather than shots of flowers or other traditional subjects, she, Annie and others in their group will pose in the nude with various foreground objects in the shots blocking views of anything too explicit.

They eventually convince other women in the group, including Ruth (PENELOPE WILTON), Jesse (ANNETTE CROSBIE), Celia (CELIA IMRIE) and Cora (LINDA BASSETT), to join them, but their decision doesn't sit will with their group's prim leader, Marie (GERALDINE JAMES) or Ruth's husband, Eddie (GEORGE COSTIGAN).

Nevertheless, and with the aid of reluctant photographer Lawrence (PHILIP GLENISTER), the women do their shots, print the calendar and then deal with the unexpected repercussions that follow.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Western culture has an interesting attitude toward nudity. Perhaps since we all come into the world naked, people don't mind when infants or very young kids are seen in the buff. Yet, when they get older and then especially in their teens and beyond, the showing of such skin is either illegal or a moral taboo.

Despite images in the media that suggest otherwise, many young people are told to keep their clothes on and use their brains rather than bods to get what they want. That's especially true when it comes to actresses who actually have "no nudity" clauses in their contracts.

When people get older, however, much of society no longer seems particularly interested or concerned with them appearing naked. As a result, such occurrences are usually played for comedy. Sometimes, however, and especially when it comes to women, they're done as a means of empowerment (particularly regarding no longer feeling the need or pressure to conform to some unwritten physical criteria).

Both of the latter are in play in "Calendar Girls," a film that no doubt will draw inevitable comparisons to the 1997 comedy, "The Full Monty." Yet, where that one was a fictitious work featuring a bunch of unemployed and mostly out of shape men who decide to strip collectively to earn some money, this effort is based on the true story of the women of the Rylstone and District Women's Institute.

They were a group of middle-aged English women who decided in 1999 to pose nude for a charity calendar. It then became far more wildly successful than any of them -- or anyone else for that matter -- could have dreamed and even resulted in them appearing together on "The Tonight Show."

Such a real life incident, and all sorts of storytelling routes one could take with it, is obviously ripe -- no pun intended -- with potential. Thus, director Nigel Cole ("Saving Grace"), who works from a script by writer Tim Firth (making his feature debut), has taken the general gist of reality and surrounded it with fictitious elements in this "dramedy."

The result is a moderately entertaining if light as a feather and stretched to its limits offering that will obviously play well to viewers, mostly of the female persuasion, who are in or near the same age bracket as the brave protagonists.

Others however, may be disappointed that the film isn't funnier, and that's not implying in any way that the sight of nude, middle-aged women is hilarious. Instead, it's that there's so much comedic potential -- in the form of the master goal, related complications and character actions and reactions -- from such a premise, as was the case with "The Full Monty." The filmmakers, however, seem reluctant and/or unable to let it all hang out and milk the premise for all that it's worth.

Perhaps they feel obligated to stick close to the real events. As I'm not familiar with them, I can't say if that's true or not. Whatever the case, the plot feels somewhat lacking in enough directly related material to fill its 100 plus minute running time. Developments late in the film also have that tacked on feeling and are then quickly resolved to ensure the obligatory happy ending.

Another problem is that unlike "The Full Monty" (and other films), we really only get to know the two main characters embodied by Helen Mirren ("Gosford Park," "Last Orders") and Julie Walters ("Billy Elliot," the "Harry Potter" films). Both are terrific and gamely play against their normal character types, but it would have been nice to have seen the other characters fleshed out (pun intended) a bit more.

While Penelope Wilton gets some decent material regarding her interaction with her boorish husband, the rest of the calendar girls are barely personified. Geraldine James ("The Luzhin Defence," "Gandhi") -- as the group's prim leader -- and Ciaran Hinds ("Road to Perdition," "The Sum of All Fears") and John-Paul MacLeod ("To Kill a King," "The Testimony of Taliesin Jones") as Mirren's husband and son, are present to generate some conflict, but it doesn't amount to much from a dramatic or comedic standpoint.

All of that said, the film is charming and enjoyable enough that you probably won't mind or have any difficulty sitting through it, particularly thanks to Mirren and Walters performances. While it will likely be long forgotten long before we need a new calendar of middle-aged, English woman au naturel, the moderately entertaining "Calendar Girls" is good enough to warrant a 6 out of 10 rating.

Reviewed November 20, 2003 / Posted December 19, 2003

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