On the roster of holiday heart-swellers, this week brings a pair of distaff variations on pre-tested formulae: one a girls’-own Dead Poets Society, the other an XX-rated Full Monty. In Mona Lisa Smile, maverick prof Julia Roberts strains to show a classroom of Eisenhower-era lassies that Wellesley can be more than a cute diversion before they settle down to the real business of homemaking and child-rearing; in Calendar Girls, a community group of Yorkshire women d’un certain âge gets tastefully naked for a fundraiser, feeling both the invigorating breeze of liberation and the chill of awkward fame.
As the fond voice-over tells us, Mona Lisa Smile‘s Katherine Watson traveled from bohemian Berkeley “to the most conservative college in the nation” (really? Wellesley?!) because “she wanted to make a difference.” It’s the dimpled and diabolical Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) who recites this dewy reminiscence, and since the film unspools as an extended flashback in which Betty initially reigns as cold-and-creamy queen bitch (sabotaging a hall-mate’s budding romance, tarring the school nurse as a “cheerleader for promiscuity” in a newspaper column), we’re sure from the start that Katherine’s tough-love tutelage will scuff and soften the younger woman’s patent-leather facade of smug prudery, and leave everyone else scrambling atop the nearest desk in tender salute, including flask-slinging sensualist Maggie Gyllenhaal (adding voluptuous curves to a stringy nympho role) and naive cherub Ginnifer Goodwin.
Primly scrubbed of narrative suspense from its opening moments, Mike Newell’s crowded inspirational turns to the overdetermined mechanics of difference-making. Annihilated on her first day of class by a phalanx of identikit know-it-alls in twinsets and pearls, Katherine rips a page from To Sir, With Love when she tosses aside the lesson plan for a more improvisatory agenda, which in this case entails much modern art and some extracurricular agitating. She obsessively needles Joan (Julia Stiles) to apply to law school in lieu of housewifery: “You can bake your cake and eat it too!” Katherine whines, quotably but rather desperately.
A lonely crusader in cable knits, busybody Katherine appears more than simply angry with the mid-century sexism that her charges have so seamlessly internalized—she seems utterly unplugged from reality in 1953, as if that cross-country train had rudely sped her into some pre-second wave time warp; Roberts’s totally contemporary performance, leaning heavily on nose-flaring incredulity, only intensifies the disconnect. (Compare Marcia Gay Harden’s go-for-broke portrait of the “poise instructor,” slouching toward Havisham and drowning in chintz.) As Katherine’s burdens mount in the form of disapproving administrators, milquetoast beaux, and Betty’s poisoned ink-spilling, Roberts holds steady with her Haunted Fawn Gaze™ (see Sleeping With the Enemy, Mary Reilly) until Newell clears the set for her Protracted Snit Fit™ (see Notting Hill, Erin Brockovich). The title promises the type of benevolent enigma that Robin Williams impersonated in Dead Poets, but Mona Lisa Smile‘s only mysteries are the result of frenzied corner-cutting as Newell & Co. speed through the last reel, an exhausting cram session of hair-trigger speechifying and identity transformations bordering on the science-fictional.
“You can buy your cake and eat it too” might be the maxim of Calendar Girls‘ Chris (Helen Mirren), a grudging member of her local Women’s Institute chapter who preps for a bakery contest by placing an order at the local grocery. Chris’s career as a WI events planner presumably ended with a calamitous vodka-tasting some time ago, but another bare bulb of inspiration has struck: Instead of the usual landscape shots for this year’s calendar, why not a garden of English roses in autumnal blossom? “Not naked—nude,” Chris instructs her nervous recruitment of fiftysomething models. What’s the distinction? “Aarrrt.” And profit-making art at that—Chris’s best friend, Annie (Julie Walters), has just lost her husband to cancer, and the group would like to spruce up the visitors’ room at the local hospital in his memory.
As Nigel Cole’s previous film, 2000’s Saving Grace, tickled the incongruity of a proper matron smoking up, so Calendar Girls has proper matrons stripping off, albeit behind strategically positioned fruit baskets, hymnal books, and Eccles cakes. The first hour or so of Cole’s ingratiating comedy, based on a true story, establishes with light, deft strokes the various complications and contradictions of a late-blooming pinup career (if my husband hardly ever sees me starkers, does the photographer get to?), while Mirren’s flinty ringleader keeps the stage mostly dry of Anglo-whimsy leakages. The soufflé caves in once journos, jealousy, and Jay Leno enter the soft-focus picture, but Calendar Girls remains a genial lesson in how to both honor and subvert womanly expectations.