You’re Not What You Wear

Winning British comedy looks at small town women who dare to bare

The cast of gals who bare all for a good cause in “Calendar Girls.”

There’s often big drama and unexpected consequences when ordinary people act counter to society’s rule and do things they’re not supposed to.

Such is the drama behind the new British comedy “Calendar Girls.” Set in a small town in Yorkshire, the film is based on the true story of a group of women “of a certain age” who decide to pose tastefully nude for the annual Women’s Institute (WI) calendar. Small towns are often the butt of jokes and stereotypes, and the small Yorkshire town in this film is no exception.

The film opens with a montage of boring lectures at the local WI meant to illustrate how dull life there is. Particularly bored are Chris (Helen Mirren) and her best friend Annie (Julie Walters). Early in the film, Annie’s husband John struggles with leukemia and dies.

An otherwise inconsequential moment during his hospitalization—when Chris becomes uncomfortable sitting on a waiting-room sofa—turns a key in her mind. The annual WI calendar’s proceeds should go toward a new couch for that room of suffering relatives, and rather than feature the local churches, why not show the local WI members each month doing traditional WI activities—like jam making—but carrying them out tastefully topless?

The comedy ensues naturally from the uphill battle Chris and Annie have convincing friends to pose, and then convincing the local, and finally the national WI to allow it. Essential to the comedy is the women’s challenge to the notion that this endeavor is inappropriate for respectable, upper middle class ladies such as themselves. Equally strong is the bias they face against women older than 50 presenting themselves as beautiful. Some of the film’s best moments involve each of the women recognizing, “Yes, I can do this, yes I am beautiful,” and laying that knowledge bare before the world in calendar form.

Much to the amazement of all the women who participate, the calendar becomes a international phenomenon, culminating in a first-class flight to Hollywood and an appearance with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.” At some point, it becomes clear to the audience that none of this should really be surprising—each of the women is quite beautiful, both on the outside and in, and they’ve done their extraordinary exhibitionism for charity, no less.

“Calendar Girls” is a rollicking Hollywood film, not intended for deep scrutiny. This highly enjoyable comedy chooses to entertain, and touch upon in-teresting topics lightly without delving too far. The bonding that takes place is among the women, who have men in their lives for whom the calendar creates some riffs and embarrassments. But those male-female dynamics—nicely explored in the film that immediately comes to mind, “The Full Monty”—get pushed to the side in telling this story that focuses on the hoopla that surrounds the women in their success. Chris’s son Jem, for example, enjoys girlie magazines, but cannot deal with his mom going topless. That conflict is touched on, but very lightly.

The more significant conflict explored in the film is between Chris and Annie—the widowed woman feels her friend has “gone Hollywood,” and doesn’t like the changes in her. There’s a lot to enjoy in the relationships among all the women—and the actresses supporting the talented Mirren and Walters hit all the right marks. Fans of the British comedy “One Foot in the Grave” will recognize Annette Crosbie, who plays Jessie, as the long-suffering wife of Victor Meldrew.

“Calendar Girls” is good entertainment, and in the real life story on which it is based, the women from Yorkshire raised more than half a million pounds for leukemia charities. As films based on real stories go, this one does an admirable job of showing how Annie, with the help of her friends, found a way to bring joy into her life at a time of great loss.

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