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50-year-old naked women

Now that we have your attention, we can tell you about Calendar Girls, a charming comedy about the real small-town group that took it off to raise money for charity.

Published January 1, 2004

[Photo: Buena Vista Pictures]
Julie Walters, left, and Helen Mirren play the women who started the calendar girl revolution.
No hangups for this pinup girl
Julie Walters plays Ron Weasley's mom in the Harry Potter films, but in Calendar Girls the not-svelte but not-embarrassed-about-it actor bares all.

The sweetest movie full of naked women you'll see this season is Calendar Girls.

Based on the Full Monty-esque true story of a women's group in rural England that raised funds and eyebrows with a calendar of artful nude photos of middle-aged club members, Calendar Girls boasts a cast packed with accomplished British actors.

You've seen these women in BBC costume dramas, wacky sitcoms and scads of British films. You've seen them declaim in Shakespearean silks and solve crimes in sensible raincoats. Now you can see them in nothing but wide-brimmed straw hats, strategically placed trays of pastry and bits of knitting. And you may have almost as much fun as they seem to be having.

Calendar Girls is set in a rosily picturesque village in Yorkshire that is an idyllic little slice of, as the members of the Women's Institute sing, "England's green and pleasant land."

Some of the institute's members are dead serious about putting up plum jam for the club contest, but the troublemakers squirm through the interminable meetings out of a sense of duty. "I only joined because of my mother," Chris tells her friend Annie after they've snickered through another deadly lecture on broccoli or carpet.

Julie Walters' career in film has moved gracefully from the scrappy young charmer of Educating Rita to the magically maternal Molly Weasley of the Harry Potter movies.

In Calendar Girls she is touching as warm-hearted Annie, who comes up with the simple idea of raising funds to buy a sofa for the local cancer clinic after her beloved husband dies of leukemia.

The restless catalyst who proposes a nude calendar is Chris, played by the fabulous Helen Mirren. Pardon me, the fabulous Dame Helen Mirren; she received the title in June.

But there's nothing stuffy here about her performance (which has earned her a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a comedy). Fans of Prime Suspect, the crime drama series in which she plays prickly Detective Jane Tennison, know she's adept at projecting fierce intelligence and bold sexuality.

As Chris, she adds a sly sense of comedy to the mix. And Mirren, at 58 a veteran of nude scenes, looks terrific in the buff.

Annie loves Chris' idea, but it takes some work to persuade their 50-something friends to doff their respectable tweeds for charity and the camera.

Celia Imrie does a regal turn as the poshest member of their set, and Linda Basset adds wry touches as a no-nonsense cafe owner. One by one, they start thinking of themselves as February or November, and the calendar is under way.

One of the movie's funniest sequences is the preparation for the photo shoot, with the women dutifully wriggling out of their bras in the garden and on the golf course two hours in advance: "No strap marks."

At first, they huddle nervously in their bathrobes. The only person more uptight about the shoot is the young amateur photographer they've recruited; he might as well have "But they're old enough to be my mum!" written on his T-shirt.

But he starts fussing over his props, and the ladies start belting a couple of bottles of wine, and pretty soon they're giggling and razzing each other like teenagers at a slumber party.

The film's nudity never gets in the neighborhood of raunchy. It's the genteel curve of a fanny here, the soft edge of a bosom there, but no real naughty bits.

No body doubles, either. The tone of the scenes is just right: The calendar girls look like real middle-aged women, and they look charming.

Even when they have their clothes on, it's just plain refreshing in the Botox era to see women onscreen whose foreheads wrinkle when they raise their eyebrows - or, for that matter, women who can raise their eyebrows.

There's more to the movie than the nude photos. Once the calendar is printed, Chris throws herself into promoting it and succeeds beyond her wildest imagination. The media get a peek at those respectable club members in their altogethers, and suddenly the village is crawling with TV trucks.

The astounding success of the calendar even wins the women a trip to California for a TV appearance. (The real calendar outsold the Britney Spears calendar in the United States in 1999.)

That success also breeds conflict, though, especially in Chris' household, where her teenage son is in agonies of embarrassment and her usually supportive husband is getting testy about having to run their business by himself. It also pits Chris and Annie against each other over filming an ad for American television.

But the crises last about as long as it would take to flip the March page over to April. Calendar Girls is a well-executed confection, a breezy comedy with a warm heart and not a jot of condescension about its subjects. And it may be the first movie about naked women you can watch with your mom.

Calendar Girls

Grade: B-plus

Director: Nigel Cole

Cast: Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, John Alderton, Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Philip Glenister, Ciaran Hinds, Celia Imrie, Geraldine James, Penelope Wilton

Screenplay: Juliette Towhidi, Tim Firth

Rating: PG-13; nudity, some language, drug-related material

Running time: 108 min.

[Last modified December 30, 2003, 09:40:59]

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