Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:48 - Released 12/19/03

When I heard that Nigel Cole’s Calendar Girls was about the true story of some British women who posed nude for a calendar to support a charitable cause, I was intrigued. But when I heard that it starred Helen Mirren, I was really interested. It’s not that I wanted so much to see Helen’s naughty bits (I’d seen them long before in Caligula, when they were surely much younger and more firm), but she is one of my favorite actors—I’ve loved her in everything I’ve seen her in, with or without her clothes, from Excalibur to 2010 to The Madness Of King George to Gosford Park (the last two of which earned her Oscar nominations). Mirren absolutely shines in Calendar Girls, as does her co-star Julie Walters, another two-time Oscar nominee (Educating Rita, Billy Elliot), and although the film, written by Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi, is not on the whole an unqualified success, it tells a charming true story and features genuine performances by Mirren and Walters, and their supporting cast.

Mirren plays Chris Harper, a middle-aged woman from Yorkshire, England, who runs a florist shop with her husband (Ciarán Hinds) and their teenage son (John-Paul Macleod), and goes to weekly meetings of the Women’s Institute, a national service club, with her friend Annie Clarke (Walters). Although the club’s local leader Marie (Geraldine James) is very serious about the W.I. and its high-minded ideals, Chris and Annie usually just laugh and make fun of the boring and often pointless weekly presentations, like flower arranging, cake baking, or the many interesting properties of broccoli. The hilarity ends, however, when Annie’s husband John (John Alderton) dies of leukemia, but Chris gets a fundraising idea for the club based on a speech he was going to make to them regarding sunflowers. Since he asserted that sunflowers were like Yorkshire women in that they became more radiant during the latter period of their lives, she decides the women of the W.I. should pose nude for a calendar, the proceeds from which would be used to improve the local hospital’s family area.

Although Chris’s idea is at first met with predictable resistance from the club’s mostly 40-or-older members, some of them (particularly Annie) see the wit and wisdom of it, and agree to pose for one of the calendar’s twelve portraits. Soon a photographer (Philip Glenister) is found, and after a short period of modesty, the women loosen up, posing nude while doing such W.I.–type activities as flower arranging, apple pressing, and oil painting, with the accoutrements of each activity being strategically placed just so as to cover up the more illicit body parts. “It’s not naked,” they insist. “It’s nude.” The resulting calendar is such an unexpected success that the women receive national and international fame (including having a movie made about them), and raise enough money for an entire new leukemia wing at the hospital. But there are negative aspects too.

The fact that this is based on a true story does not change the fact that it seems a bit derivative of other British films like The Full Monty (men do a live strip show to raise money) and director Cole’s previous effort Saving Grace (bereaved woman grows pot to pay off her late husband’s debts). I can’t fault the writers for the story, since it really happened, but perhaps they could have done something about the presentation to make it seem a little less like formula. The scenes of them discussing the idea, defending it to their loved ones, overcoming their personal self-esteem and body issues and mustering the courage—it’s all so much like Monty in style and tone, it seems like the one script is patterned after the other. I suppose this is inevitable given the similarity of the plot—heck, maybe these women got the idea from Monty—but it is unfortunate that such a great story smacks of imitation.

This is director Cole’s second feature film (after Saving Grace) and the first full-length big screen effort for both writers, although Firth has done extensive TV writing. The creative team’s combined inexperience is perhaps the reason for their inability to craft a film better suited to stand on its own merits, but it is no less enjoyable for this minor point. Mirren again shows us why she is still able to obtain leading vehicles at age 58; she’s got the craft not only to reach emotions and deliver lines, but to show us the simple everyday reality that exists in the minds, hearts, souls, of her characters. Ditto for Walters, whose struggle with the real reason for all this hoopla and silliness never leaves her character’s face. The several women who make up the other calendar models (Linda Bassett, Celia Imrie, Annette Crosbie, Penelope Wilton, and others), while not what one would call physically stunning, are each attractive in their own ways, and earn our admiration not for their luscious booty, but for what they achieve through invention, courage and a slightly sexy sense of humor. Exactly the point of the movie.

In closing I would just like remind my readers that in addition to being a movie critic I am also a professional photographer, and if any women’s group in my local area or surrounding vicinity is interested in undertaking such a project, I would be willing to lend my services for a reasonable fee. Any age group welcome. No men. ****

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

Current | Archives | Oscars | About | E-Mail