Calendar Girls

A story like “Calendar Girls” could only have come from England. We Yankees are too coarse for anyone to be shocked if our old ladies posed nude for a calendar. But English women, known for being reserved, prim and — how shall I say this? — not exactly pin-up material — when THEY whip off their knickers in front of a camera, NOW you’ve got yourself a story!

It’s a true story, too, which gives the film a nice touch but which doesn’t matter. Like all good fact-based movies, the plot’s basis in reality isn’t used as a crutch. The movie’s entertaining and whimsical on its own, non-fiction or not.

Chris (Helen Mirren) and Annie (Julie Walters) are too rather subversive members of the Knavely chapter of the Women’s Institute, a stuffy ladies’ club that tortures its members weekly with guest speakers addressing dull topics like broccoli. The WI’s annual fundraiser is a calendar, usually with photos of baked goods or flowers, but this year Chris and Annie have an idea: Do a girlie calendar, like auto mechanics having hanging in their garages, but with the WI ladies posing, their more delicate parts hidden by the usual baked goods or flowers. People would actually buy something interesting like that, and the women can donate the money to the local hospital, where Annie recently saw her husband John (John Alderton) succumb to cancer.

There is the expected opposition from the conservative WI leader, and Chris and Annie’s fellow club members’ initial apprehension, mostly due to their middle-agedness and lack of confidence when it comes to public nudity. Once the calendar is produced and gains notoriety, we see the usual effects of success (neglecting one’s family, forgetting why one started the project in the first place, etc.). The film breaks no new ground in its plotting, that is for certain.

What’s notable is the movie’s gently funny, quaint sense of humor, and the endearingly daft performances from the women. Each woman, lovely in her own way, has a face with character, and I mean that as a compliment. The women are great to look at, with expressive faces and genuine personalities. Helen Mirren, so rigid in “Gosford Park,” seems to having a grand time, and Julie Walters is excellent as her stalwart, more grounded companion. The supporting cast is equally colorful and dotty.

The director is Nigel Cole, whose last film, “Saving Grace,” also dealt with a widow raising money by unusual means (she grew marijuana). He must have jumped at the chance to direct this story, with the same pleasant charm that made “Saving Grace” so enjoyable.

Like that earlier film, “Calendar Girls” may be too slight for its own good. It has its deeper moments, and they are well done, but it can’t ever really convince us that it means anything. Still, as piffle goes, it’s pretty entertaining piffle.

B+ (1 hr., 48 min.; PG-13, some vulgarity, a lot of partial nudity.)