December 16th, 2003
The flip description going around about "Calendar Girls" is that it's the female "Full Monty." Yes and no. Yes, it's about Brits taking their clothes off. (Or "getting their kit off" if you want to be insufferably British.) And yes, like "Monty", "Calendar Girls" has dramatic undercurrents that give it more depth than the Benny Hill elements might suggest. But this time, it's not a scene from a class struggle... these women are relatively well off. And no, there isn't all that much nudity... I'd wager that most blokes wouldn't be embarrassed to take their mums to see it. Okay, I'll stop it now.
"Calendar Girls" is based on a real story that riveted the United Kingdom, and at least made enough impact in the U.S. to sell 250,000 calendars. Let me explain that. As the real-life folks involved would no doubt have insisted, one has to begin explaining the story of "Calendar Girls" with the story of John Clarke. John Alderton deftly portrays this relatively young man who faces fatal leukemia with a sense of humor. After John passes away, his wife Annie (Julie Walters) has a simple wish: She wants to contribute something to leukemia research... or, at the very least, she wants to get a couch for the visiting room of the local hospital that isn't quite so uncomfortable. Her boisterous friend Chris (Helen Mirren) has a typically outrageous idea about how to raise the money. You see, both Annie and Chris belong to the Women's Institute (WI for short), a very staid English institution. I'm talking staid, as in, lectures about broccoli are often the highlight of their weekly meetings. The Institute's annual calendar often portrays their elegantly dressed members engaged in stereotypically "female" activities... either that, or nature scenes. Chris playfully suggests that a lot more money could be made if the WI put out a nude calendar. A photographer refines Chris's initial inspiration: Why not photograph the women of the Institute, engaging in their typical calendar activities like flower arranging, baking, etc.... but, all sans clothes? The props would be carefully arranged to cover up the "naughty bits."
Well, unsurprisingly, it takes a lot of convincing to get this to happen. First the WI gals have to be talked into posing, and then the larger WI organization has to be convinced to allow it. Once the calendar gets printed, it turns out that the idea of middle-aged women getting their kit off (sorry, I'm in the mood now) has appeal to the English... or, more likely, that the images poked fun at the WI's image in just the right way to tickle the Anglo funny bone. There's far more demand for the calendar than anyone could possibly have anticipated. Soon the "Calendar Girls" are national celebrities (and tabloid fodder)... and soon after that, once they cross the pond to America, international celebrities as well.
Lord knows that there aren't too many films that have not just one, but several, quality roles for middle-aged women (never mind roles that require said women to go nude.) But "Calendar Girls" most definitely does, and the sheer novelty of seeing some grey hairs and wrinkles on screen is sure to make many folks very happy. Top that ensemble off with two stellar actresses -- two-time Oscar nominee Walters as the relatively shy Annie, and the legendary Mirren dominating scenes as Chris -- and you definitely have a formula for a crowd-pleaser. Even a theater full of jaded critics seemed to be hanging on every witticism and dryly absurd situation put together by "Saving Grace" director Nigel Cole.
But "Calendar Girls" avoids the trap of becoming a mere comic romp by exploring issues beyond naughtiness: mourning, friendship and fame. On the rare occasions that a film does center around older women, it's almost a cliche that at least one of said older women will somehow rediscover their sexuality. Although there is an element of that here, Cole smartly doesn't make it the primary emphasis. The Calendar Girls aren't "liberated", so much as made far more notorious than they ever expected. As the phenomenon grows, Annie starts to believe that the calendar's original goal -- to honor her husband -- is being lost. Annie feels that fame is going to Chris' head and making her less attentive to her family, while Annie would be happy to have any family at all. The tension and resentment all comes to a head when the Girls come to Hollywood to do "The Tonight Show." To be honest, many of the scenes that play this out are more than a little clunky. Luckily, Walters and Mirren are able to kludge together something decent out of it.
"Calendar Girls" is a feel-gooder that gives its audience a lot more credit than a Hollywood version of this tale most likely would. It's still a fluffy dessert, but you won't feel guilty afterwards.
My rating: B