The full calendar

Helen Mirren as Chris Harper in <i>Calendar Girls</i>: “I’ve got the most brilliant idea: pinups of naked women who look like Bea Arthur!”

Helen Mirren as Chris Harper in Calendar Girls: “I’ve got the most brilliant idea: pinups of naked women who look like Bea Arthur!”

Rated 3.0

Years ago, the bandleader Spike Jones had a TV show in which a regular feature was his “lectures” on various topics. One night, speaking on “Women of Other Nations,” Jones said, “There are many misconceptions in American minds. For example, contrary to popular belief, not all French women look like Brigitte Bardot. Not all Italian women look like Sophia Loren. However, it is true that most Englishwomen look pretty much like Rex Harrison.”

The new movie Calendar Girls, about a group of mature English matrons who pose discreetly nude for a charity calendar, plays on that old joke. If a dozen Frenchwomen of a certain age decided to pose in the buff, it’s hard to imagine it being grist for comedy, but there’s an aura of prudishness that (rightly or wrongly) clings to middle-aged Englishwomen—which is probably why the original real-life calendar girls became such a sensation.

“Original? Real-life?” you ask, and I can almost hear you swallow hard.

Yes, it’s true: Calendar Girls is emblazoned with the five-word boast that every discerning moviegoer has learned to dread: “based on a true story.” That phrase is usually a sure sign that the movie’s kernel of fact has been tarted up with every cheap cliché in the book, until the “true story” becomes just one more movie like any other.

Or, in the case of Calendar Girls, it becomes like one other in particular. Calendar Girls clearly seeks to evoke The Full Monty (1997), only instead of regular, working-class men, the spotlight is on straitlaced middle-class women.

Helen Mirren plays Chris Harper, a member of a Yorkshire chapter of Britain’s Women’s Institute. With her best friend, Annie Clarke (Julie Walters), she sniggers behind her hand at the steady parade of stodgy lectures the Women’s Institute presents. When Annie’s husband, John (John Alderton), dies of leukemia, Chris hatches an idea for the chapter’s annual calendar. Inspired by a lecture that John, a gifted gardener, wrote but was too sick to deliver (“The flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire: The last stage of their growth is the most glorious”), Chris suggests that for this year’s calendar, instead of the usual dull views of churches and other landmarks, the women of the institute pose in their birthday suits. They’ll illustrate John’s point even as—they hope—the calendar raises money for the hospital where John was treated.

Writers Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi do their best to embellish the facts into movie triteness. They concoct a conflict between Chris, Annie and their chapter president over the “shocking” project, with the two having to defend themselves before a national Women’s Institute conference (in fact, everybody seems to have thought the calendar was a great idea from the start). They bring in a subplot about one woman having trouble in her marriage. And when the women take a whirlwind tour of Hollywood and appear with Jay Leno, Firth and Towhidi suggest (ever so briefly) that celebrity may have gone to the women’s heads.

This kind of by-the-numbers screenwriting could have made Calendar Girls hopelessly banal. But the happy truth is that Firth and Towhidi’s efforts are too half-hearted and unskillful to do much damage to the story’s underlying appeal, which is substantial, or to the charm of the movie’s players, which is immense. Mirren and Walters make a great team of no-nonsense pals, and their friends in the institute are played by some of the unsung heroines of the British acting profession (Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Linda Bassett and Annette Crosbie).

And for every hackneyed touch the writers trot out, there is a counterbalancing moment of grace, such as when Bassett, as the church organist, considers the idea of posing: “I’m 55 years old. If I’m not going to get ’em out now, when am I?” Or Imrie’s sweet smile as she finally relaxes to have her picture taken.

The movie begins to run out of steam during the Hollywood scenes: We’re supposed to see the women as out of their element, but the whole movie feels more comfortable in Yorkshire than on the Sunset Strip. Still, thanks to its stars and Nigel Cole’s inoffensive direction, Calendar Girls rises above the meddling of its writer.