Calendar Girls (review)

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The Full Monthly

Here’s the thing: Calendar Girls will invariably be compared to The Full Monty. It’s charming English-type people getting naked for a good cause, so how could it not be? But not to put down The Full Monty, which is a lovely little film, or men — some of my best friends are male, after all — but there’s a world of difference between Monty and Girls, and that difference is the one between how male and female nudity are depicted onscreen.

I mean, you’d think, with the way that men (some men, anyways) go on about their dangly bits, that they’d be only too happy to drop trou up on the big screen with only the slightest provocation. But it never works out that way, of course, because then all the bravado and the big words may be discovered to be, ahem, not so big after all. But boobs? Damn, even when we gals are fully dressed, everyone can plainly see what we do or don’t have, so geez, what’s the big deal about showing ’em?

That seems to be the general consensus around the male-dominated film industry, at least: Protect the pride and dignity of guys, but let the gals go nekkid cuz their secrets are out in the open anyway. You couldn’t make a film in which women baring their breasts was the grand finale — like the guys not having to go the full monty till the very end, not that we got a glimpse of anything — cuz where’s the big revelation in knockers? We see ’em all the time.

And that’s what makes Calendar Girls such a great little film. Going the full monty — the full betsy? the full breasty? — is a moment of triumph for the gals, naturally, but that’s only the beginning. Yorkshire lasses Annie Clarke (Julie Walters: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Billy Elliot) and Chris Harper (Helen Mirren: Gosford Park, The Pledge) concoct their nudist scheme after Annie’s husband dies of cancer, and they want to raise money in his name for the hospital that treated him. Typically, their Women’s Institute — a conservative, Rotary Club kind of organization — does an annual calendar: bridges of Yorkshire or churches of Yorkshire, which raises a few hundred pounds. Chris’s radical idea: photograph members of the local chapter doing traditionally twee WI things, like gardening or baking buns, only they’re doing it in the buff.

Daring as it may be, from a Hollywood perspective, to craft a flick around, you know, older women getting naked — which is just absurd anyway, because Helen Mirren and Julie Walters are timeless goddesses — it still wouldn’t do to have the film culminate in the throwing away of bras. The women here, Annie and Chris and ten other adventurous ladies, do grab a sense of freedom and bravery from taking it all off and participating in the, it must be noted, very tasteful and not at all salacious photo shoot, which results in a very tasteful and not at all salacious calendar, available for sale in the lobby. But women, if we’re going to be honest about these things, and this is an honest film, are far too practical to let a simple decision about getting in the altogether in public be dragged out for the length of a two-hour film. It’s everything that comes after the running naked and the photo shoot that’s the really interesting gal-pal stuff: the fame and the recognition and the hounding by the press and Chris’s near desertion of her husband (Ciarán Hinds: Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Veronica Guerin) while Annie still mourns for hers that tests the friendship of these best of friends.

It’s all more bittersweet and tangier than you’d expect, saturated with a bracing Yorkshire humor and walking that fine line between open sentimentality and genuine feeling. It’s a chick flick about real chicks: strong, interesting women full of personality and driven by authentic spirit. Forget about the “victory” of public nudity — this is a film about the victory of maintaining a friendship through the roughest of times, through fame and grief. Calendar Girls takes back the derogatory moniker that gets slapped on films about phony women and wears it like a badge of female honor. Though it may have nothing upon which to pin it except bare skin.

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