Calendar Girls
review by Dan Lybarger, 26 December 2003

Every now and then, there's a pop culture trend that gives me hope. A British calendar featuring pictures of women past the age of 50 that was intended to raise money to for leukemia research managed to outsell the Britney Spears calendar in the United States. With its lofty and successful goals in mind (nearly 500,000 British pounds worth of these things have been purchased), it might not seem improper that the subjects in the better selling calendar were photographed nude.

The poses these calendar girls have taken are more quaint than exploitative (most feature the participants cooking or playing piano), the unusual actions taken by members of a local Women's Institute in Yorkshire have helped demonstrate to a sadly youth-obsessed culture that age and beauty are not mutually exclusive and have inspired an affectionately entertaining, if easily predictable film.

Director Nigel Cole is making a career out of capturing almost stereotypical Brits losing their inhibitions in often hysterically funny ways. His last feature, Saving Grace, showed what a little canabis can do for a small town, so he's a reasonable choice to demonstrate how far people might go for a good cause.

Calendar Girls benefits immeasurably from a talented, agreeable cast who manage to elicit far more chuckles than the thin setup would seemingly allow. Dame Hellen Mirren stars as Chris Harper, a middle-aged woman who attends the monthly meetings of her Knapely, Yorkshire Women's Institute or WI, and often wonders why she bothers. Most of the presentations are rather dull (listeners learn more than they could ever want to know about the history of the Milk Marketing Board or broccoli), and the only reason she wins a baking competition is because a store-bought dish she's brought out of desperation is mistaken for homemade.

Attending does give her a chance to catch up with her pal Annie Clarke (Julie Walters). Annie needs all the support she can get because her husband John (John Alderton) is dying of leukemia. When the disease takes him, Chris and Annie decide that their local hospital desperately needs a new couch. It's bad enough that people have to watch their loved ones die, and the dilapidated furniture only makes matters more agonizing.

The local WI often uses their calendar to raise a few bucks for good causes, but last year's volume couldn't begin to cover the cost of a sofa, and it's doubtful the theme of this year's datebook (vegetables) will inspire a bestseller either.

Chris and Annie then decide to try something different. Noticing how nude calendars seem to be dominating the walls of car repair shops, they decide that posing for one themselves might make a bit of a stir. They'll simply be making the same sort of poses they've always made for a calendar except they won't have to wear clothes, and if anything, some get intrigued by the idea of doing something that's inconceivable for women their age.

Consequently, the WI members have an amusingly difficult time trying to overcome their obstacles through trial and error. If local prudery won't stop them, watch them try to conquer their own inhibitions as they try to pose. They're even afraid of letting the male photographer they've hired (Philip Glenister) in the room.

Needless to say, the calendar becomes an unexpected and overwhelming success. Much of the humor comes from how the villagers react to the publication and the seemingly reserved women who appeared in it. Chris' son (delightfully played by John Paul Macleod), in particular, is utterly bewildered and frustrated with his mother's obsessive fascination with pornography. At some point, he wishes his mother would chew him out about his pornographic magazines the way most mums do instead of gazing at them for inspiration. In addition, her husband Rod (Ciaran Hinds) learns that fame has an eerie downside.

Screenwriters Tim Firth and Fuliett Towhidi run out of chuckles once the Yorkshire lasses start basking in international fame. The attempts at setting up a conflict between Chris and Annie fall flat. In some ways the film is marred by its true life origins. A lot of the tension over whether the Calendar girls will succeed is lost.

Thankfully, Mirren and Walters are thoroughly convincing lifelong buddies and project the necessary intelligence to make their character's antics seem as logical as they are outrageous. As a result, Chris' zeal is as contagious as it is unusual.

It's temping to treat this film as a sort of female The Full Monty, where the protagonists strip to redeem themselves. Thankfully, Calendar Girls is funny enough in its own right to make such a comparison pointless.

Directed by:
Nigel Cole

John Alderton
Angus Barnett
Linda Bassett
George Costiga
Annette Crosbie
Graham Crowden
Angela Curran
Georgie Glen
Philip Glenister
Ciarán Hinds
Janet Howd
Celia Imrie
Geraldine James
Jay Leno
John-Paul Macleod
Matt Malloy
Helen Mirren
Merryn Owen
Alison Pargeter
Ted Robbins
Darren Southworth
John Sparkes
Lesley Staples
Julie Walters
Penelope Wilton

Written by:
Tim Firth
Juliette Towhidi

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.






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