3 stars (out of 4)
British director Nigel Cole is specializing in the naughtiness of middle-age British women. In his last film, the cloying "Saving Grace" (2000), Brenda Blethyn sells pot to pay her bills.
His new "Calendar Girls," which earns its cutesiness more convincingly, has Helen Mirren and Julie Walters leading a group of Yorkshire women who go Almost Full Monty for a charity calendar. What's next, Judi Dench dealing Internet porn?
You've got to hand it to the British for their way of making the risqué seem quaint. As the crusty husband of one of the models says after the calendar has attracted national press, "You're nude in the Telegraph, dear. Can you pass the bacon?"
"Calendar Girls" inhabits one of those English pastoral landscapes where you immediately feel right at home, even as the characters test their own comfort levels. Mirren's Chris and Walters' Anne belong to their village's local Women's Institute, in which they sing traditional songs and stifle laughter during guest lectures about carpeting and broccoli.
The group's leadership may be scandalized by the idea of a nude calendar, but they'd no doubt enjoy a matinee of "Calendar Girls." That's OK. There's nothing wrong with a movie knowing its target audience, especially one as underserved and underrepresented as women who hear "Britney" and think "God Save the Queen."
The movie, written by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth, is based on a true story.
After Anne's husband, John (John Alderton), dies of leukemia, she decides she'd like to replace the hospital's knotty sofa so family members can sit in comfort during their darkest hours. The WI's annual fundraiser usually is a calendar featuring churches or pretty views, but Chris, noticing her son's and mechanic's penchant for girlie pictures, figures she and her fellow housewives could pose nude instead.
They view the decision as a tribute to John, who'd written a speech for the WI comparing the women to flowers: "The last phase is the most glorious."
"Calendar Girls" wouldn't work if it didn't convince you that this sentiment is true. Mirren, in particular, is glorious, portraying Chris as a beauty in no need of Botox because her radiant spirit, her naturalness, her laugh constantly residing behind her eyes are the keys to her allure. You keep expecting Keanu Reeves to pop by to woo her; like Diane Keaton in "Something's Gotta Give," Mirren makes the case that middle age can be sexy.
Walters has the dowdier widow's role, but she's also a force, the one who grounds Chris - and the movie - when the calendar becomes a surprise international phenomenon. Who knew there was such a market for fiftysomething women posing in homey settings with their naughty bits strategically obscured by muffins and plants as if they were in an "Austin Powers" movie?
The movie offers the requisite scenes of the women reluctant to disrobe, the inhibited housewife who finally gets naked and becomes empowered to confront her philandering husband, Chris's self-righteous speeches to the calendar's fuddy-duddy opponents, the puzzled reactions of the women's family members. One of the more interesting subplots, Chris' son's experimentation with drugs in the embarrassed aftermath of his mother's exposure, becomes a mere afterthought.
Yet if "Calendar Girls" doles out few surprises, it at least delivers the required goodies. It creates a strong sense of a living, breathing community, and you root for its affectionately drawn characters as they experience the giddiness of triumph without forgetting the project's bittersweet inspiration. A late sequence in Los Angeles, though it allows Jay Leno to get his overexposed mug into another movie, features an emotionally potent confrontation between Chris and Anne as they stand in their robes on a studio lot's faux city street.
Like the calendars themselves, "Calendar Girls" isn't tremendously revealing. But looking at it is a kick.
Directed by Nigel Cole; written by Juliette Towhidi, Tim Firth; photographed by Ashley Rowe; edited by Michael Parker; production designed by Martin Childs; music by Patrick Doyle; produced by Suzanne Mackie, Nick Barton. A Touchstone Pictures release; opens Friday, Dec. 19. Running time: 1:33. MPAA rating: PG-13 (nudity, some language, drug-related material).
Chris - Helen Mirren
Anne - Julie Walters
John - John Alderton
Cora - Linda Bassett
Jessie - Annette Crosbie
Lawrence - Philip Glenister