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Hot to Trot: (From left) Trisha Stewart, Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and Angela Baker decide to take it off, all off, for 'Calendar Girls.'

The Full Mommy

'Calendar Girls' is the tasteful story of an English women's club going nude for charity

By Richard von Busack

THE POTENTIAL COYNESS of Calendar Girls could frighten off a viewer. The film is based on the true story of a group from the Rylstone and District Women's Institute in north England (a kind of garden club/lady's auxiliary) who took their clothes off for charity calendar. The previews suggest a simpering entertainment being sold as the women's version of The Full Monty. Yet there's nothing coy about Helen Mirren. Mirren has been doing nude scenes since 1969 (in Michael Powell's Age of Consent) and approaches the camera with little fear. (Why, though, does Mirren get the ugliest photo staging of the 12--posing with a cider squeezer that no one, male or female, would want near the delicate parts of their body?)

Calendar Girls follows the lead of the singularly alert and smart Mirren, in partnership with the dry, funny Julie Walters as her best chum, Annie. Early on, Annie loses her husband to the disease that the British misspell as "leukaemia." To raise funds for the hospital, Chris (Mirren) and Annie decide to design a calendar on which they and their friends will pose nude, despite the fact that none of these ladies will ever see the happy side of 50 again.

On the whole, director Nigel Cole handles this material deftly, avoiding the predictable boring scenes of the husbands arguing against the improperness of the calendar. The action is set in the fictional town of Knapely in Yorkshire, not far from where Rivers and Tides was filmed. The Yorkshire Dales are viewed in widescreen images that will be drawing hikers there by the thousands. And the men of the area seem to have soaked in the melancholy splendor of their surroundings. One of the funniest scenes features the husbands gathered silently in a pub, chugging pints in palpable discomfort, as their wives are being photographed in the altogether. As an ignored wife named Ruth, Penelope Wilton (who's Mrs. Ian Holm in real life) lends a gentle sadness to the film, a counterpoint to Annie's episodes of anger and grief.

In the last third, after the calendar turns into a scandalous success, Cole introduces stagy conflict between Annie and Chris. Supposedly, the latter seems to be forgetting the charitable purpose of the exercise, thanks to her too-eager embrace of her new fame. This all seems false. How can you worry about someone getting too big for their britches when they're not wearing any? The blatant plug for Virgin Atlantic is like an inserted commercial. Cinema needs a restraining order against Jay Leno's cameos. And the scene of a lecherous advertising man trying to get the women to disrobe bids to wear out the film's welcome.

Still, Calendar Girls is more like an Ealing comedy or Bill Forsyth's memorable Local Hero than it is like exported fluff for the aged American filmgoer. In the wrong hands, Calendar Girls could have been about a group of women looking silly as they retrieved their youth. Instead, it's a sweet, funny film about women expressing themselves at exactly the age they are.

Calendar Girls (PG-13; 108 min.), directed by Nigel Cole, written by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth, photographed by Ashley Rowe and starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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Web extra to the December 18-24, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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