Though it’s taken more than five years, the British film industry has finally come up with something it’s obviously been assiduously searching for all that time–a feminine version of “The Full Monty.” The result has nowhere near the brisk efficiency of the earlier picture, and it lacks the kind of raucously entertaining finale that marked its male counterpart. But “Calendar Girls” is moderately pleasurable, largely because of its large, exuberant ensemble cast and its understated British humor. Although it goes on too long and Nigel Cole’s direction is lackadaisical, the well-appointed comedy-drama should make its mark among the older viewers at whom it’s clearly aimed–the same crowd that’s eating up “Something’s Gotta Give,” a far more grating flick.
The script by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth is based–very loosely, it must be said–on one of those “true stories” one often finds alluded to at the beginning of telefilms. Helen Mirren and Julie Walters star as Chris Harper and Annie Clark, two Yorkshire neighbors who chortle over the inane lectures regularly sponsored by their local chapter of the National Women’s Institute. Happy in their marriages–Chris to florist Rod (Ciaran Hinds) and Annie to writer John (John Alderton)–the two friends find their idyllic existence shattered when John is diagnosed with terminal leukemia. After his death, Chris–the more extroverted, rebellious of the duo–suggests that they turn their annual WI project into something special: a calendar in which, for each month, a member of their group will be photographed engaged in some typical activity (baking, floral arranging, piano playing), but nude. The proceeds are to be donated to the local hospital.
Thus far the narrative is fairly close to the real story of Tricia Stewart and Angela Baker; Angela’s husband John had in fact died of blood cancer, and they had put together such a calendar to raise money to benefit the hospital that had treated him in his last days. But in real life the calendar was produced without incident, became an unexpectedly huge international phenomenon and raked in hundreds of thousands of pounds. In translating the tale to film, the makers added healthy doses of resistance to the idea to be overcome–institutional intransigence, production difficulties and interpersonal crises. Locals have to be persuaded to pose; an acceptable photographer has to be located, and the logistics of the shoot arranged to minimize embarrassment; sponsors have to be identified; opposition from local WI members and the national organization have to be defeated; and sellers have to be contacted. And after the success of the venture, problems emerge between Chris and Annie, Chris has to face difficulties at home involving both her husband and her son (the former blurts out some uncomplimentary things to a reporter and the latter, ashamed of what mum has done, gets into trouble with the local constabulary), and the whole culture of celebrity threatens to undermine the purity of the enterprise itself. Need we say that none of the difficulties prove insurmountable (though a few are simply dropped without resolution, it must be said).
The contrivances do mount up in all this–the scene in which the nervous girls address the national meeting of the WI is too obviously an effort to create a rousing Grandstand Moment, and the trip to Hollywood, meant to symbolize the crass commercialization that threatens the integrity of the women’s vision, is an especially egregious effort at combining crude crowd-pleasing and slurpy sentiment. They might have been fatal if it weren’t for the estimable cast. Helen Mirren brings her special brand of sauciness to Chris, working well not only with the more restrained, quietly effective Julie Walters as Annie, but also with a subdued Hinds (who shows up, it seems, in every second picture released nowadays) as her long-suffering but supportive mate. For the other women in the WI group, Cole and his collaborators have assembled a sturdy crew of personable older actresses–including Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie and Georgie Glen–who bring a good deal of piquancy to their roles even when they’re not given much character. Among the males, Philip Glenister makes the most of the shy local cameraman who takes the photos–all of which are utterly inoffensive, of course–and John-Paul McLeod manages to earn some sympathy as Chris’s troubled son. Complementing the cast’s work is that of the crew: “Calendar Girls” has been sumptuously shot by Ashley Rowe, and all the technical credits are first-class. Patrick Doyle’s score is expertly judged, too, proving especially adept in filling in for dialogue in the wordless montages that occur throughout.
“Calendar Girls” will never be mistaken for an important film–it’s far too calculated a popular entertainment for that–nor is it an especially rousing laugh-machine (indeed, the intentionally “uproarious” sequences are the ones most likely to disappoint). At heart it’s a gentle, rather sentimental ode to the strength and resiliency of women “of a certain age,” to put it euphemistically, and especially those viewers who can identify with its heroines should enjoy its innocently naughty, but never offensive, humor.