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Calendar Girls
by Carla Freccero

Now playing at Aptos twin and Green Valley Cinemas, Calendar Girls is directed by Nigel Cole and is based on a true story about a group of middle-aged women in Yorkshire who decide to do a nude calendar to raise money for the leukemia ward in a local hospital, in memory of the husband of Annie (played by Julie Walters) who dies early on in the film.

The evident star of the film is Helen Mirren, who plays Chris, the unruly member of the Women's Institute, bored to tears with weekly lectures on asparagus or rocks. Although the obvious comparison that comes to mind is The Full Monty, it's really nothing like that movie, since everyone's reasonably well off, genteel even, and since middle-aged women stripping do not create the same comic effect-in this society, we tend to be either horrified or deeply embarrassed at the thought. Instead, think of a gal pal movie and add a few decades: Chris and Annie are thick as thieves, best friends and partners in crime. When Chris cheats to win a sponge cake baking competition, Annie covers.

Calendar Girls is also not quite a comedy. Yes, it's heartwarming, as they say, but it's also intelligent, wry, and understated in all the right places. Where, in an American movie, we'd expect broad-stroke humor and melodrama, here we have taste: the women are capable, dignified, lively; the men are gently perplexed, simple, supportive.

And the calendar is a work of art. It's rare that movies manage to represent art photography in a tasteful manner, and usually we are forced to suspend our disbelief when visual art gets portrayed. But here the pictures are really good, and the story of the photographer and the shooting sessions that produce them hold our attention. Shot in black and white in domestic settings (while baking, tending flowers, preparing meals and, in a group shot, singing Christmas carols), the women are at times like luminous still-lifes. Each beautiful portrait conveys some inner light and communicates the quiet loveliness of these seemingly ordinary women. Taken together, the photos convey the way the women-and their vibrancy-are at the center of the life of this country village.

Of course, one can't help wonder what all these cultivated, lively, large-than-life older women are doing in this sleepy little place, and why they all seem so well-off. Mirren, in other words, just doesn't quite seem to fit. In fact, the story is almost about how her restless ambition gets the better of her and ruins her family life. Fortunately, the movie backs off this tediously moralistic conclusion and redeems itself when Chris's husband delivers a speech admiring his wife's aspirations.

It's hard to treat the subject of women and aging without at some point offending women of a certain age. In general, the culture's pretty merciless about the supposed loss of youth and beauty, and so we are understandably prickly when the topic is broached. I admit I had one such moment of annoyance watching Calendar Girls, when a woman who's obviously well into her sixties confesses-with some embarrassment about the question of nudity-that she is, after all, fifty-five. Why exaggerate the age, first of all, and second, since when are 55-year olds' bodies so self-evidently over the hill? But this is the only time the movie messes up. The rest of it succeeds admirably in doing respectful tribute to the beauty of others besides the very young.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.