Calendar Girls

Vaguely true tale that boils down to a female The Full Monty. Lightweight and enjoyable.

Released in 2003, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 01 Sep 2003 by Craig Eastman
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You may or may not know the true-life inspiration behind this movie, but then again it matters not a jot. For those who are interested, a group of Women's Institute members from a small town in England got together and produced a nude calendar to raise money for a local hospital where one of their husbands died of cancer. Said calendar ended up being so successful that the girls became t-shirt of the week not only in their native Britain but also in America. This is a vaguely truthful interpretation of those events, sprinkled with many a cinema-pleasing liberty in order to keep the punters awake for the hour-fifty running time.

The sleepy village of Knapely is the kind of picturesque, sleepy Yorkshire town resting in the shadow of the mining era that Hollywood loves to imagine as your average English locale. Annie Clarke (Julie Walters) and Chris Harper (Helen Mirren) are best of friends and reluctant regulars of the W.I. Knapely division's monthly meetings. When Annie's husband John (John Alderton) passes away due to cancer, the pair decide to raise money to buy a new leather sofa for the relative's room at the hospital where he died. Envisaging the involvement of the W.I. as a means to an end, Annie and Chris take their cue from a speech John had written for one of their meetings that celebrated the beauty of Yorkshire's women, and decide to produce a nude calendar. Certainly more interesting than the usual collection of church halls and the like, but not exactly in keeping with the image of England's last bastion of feminine country values.

Initially reluctant, enough volunteers soon come forward to make the calendar a possibility, but division leader Marie (Geraldine James) is determined to uphold the integrity of her beloved unit and sets about seeking the support of the W.I.'s chairwoman in banishing the proposed calendar into oblivion. Not to be outdone, Chris, Annie and their troupe of wannabe wobbly Jordan's (able support from the likes of Celia Imrie, Annette Crosbie and Penelope Wilton) set about realising their vision with or without the group's help. Aided by hospital porter and amateur photographer Lawrence (Philip Glenister), the girls overcome their inhibitions and produce a calendar that captures the imagination of not just the local community but also the country at large.

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With the W.I. presenting a potentially explosive problem (as far as these things go), the real trouble only starts when the media, captivated by the sheer audacity of the women's endeavours, descend on sleepy Knapely and turn the eleven mature models into media stars overnight. Conflicts, rivalries and family problems previously kept dormant begin to bubble to the surface, eventually coming to the boil when Hollywood beckons our busty babes. Chris' home life with husband Rod (Ciar?n Hinds), who runs his small business from their house, is tested when she leaves him and their son in the lurch in order to milk the media. Unable to cope at work without his wife's help, Rod is also left to deal with their son's trouble with the police as she disappears off to Hollywood with the others to appear on Jay Leno.

Annoyed as she already is at Chris for this abandonment, Annie also finds the media's flirtation with Chris as the group's leader somewhat grating, understandable given it's not her husband they're supposed to be honouring. There's no hair pulling, but as Chris' continuous limelight-absorbing ways reach critical mass there's certainly plenty of vitriol on the menu amongst a steadily disintegrating group of friends. Can they stand each other's presence long enough to resolve their differences? Can Chris overcome her newfound desire for media attention in order to save her marriage? Will the calendar sell enough to buy that sofa they all like? Oh, go on...take a guess.

Relatively inoffensive in it's execution, Calendar Girls is essentially a female version of The Full Monty; this time it's women shedding their clothes to free themselves of inhibition and the limiting ways of traditional English country life. The only difference other than the gender swap is that here their quest is monetary rather than personal, although they experience plenty of the latter anyhow. A word of warning for the dirty mac brigade though; the 12A rating belies the complete lack of sexual titillation those preferring the migrationary habits of the middle-age female bosom may enter the cinema seeking. As much flesh as is on display, this is a nipple-free zone, save for a couple of coat hangers glimpsed in the pages of Chris' son's jazz mag which she discovers under the rug in his bedroom.

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Yes, those god-fearing types who were quaking at the prospect of gratuitous female nudity can rest assured this is for the most part family-friendly fare, assuming you don't mind words like "tits", "boobs" and "bugger". The script, whilst largely unremarkable, is still sufficiently efficient to ensure the movie feels more like ninety minutes than pushing the two hour mark. Plotwise you can expect all the usual moral tosh about friendship and inhibition, but despite the lack of any new angle director Nigel Cole still manages to pull it all off in admirably entertaining fashion. Only occasionally resorting to capturing the stunning but clich?d Yorkshire vistas, he relies instead on an apt and able cast to deliver the goods.

The only disappointment about Mirren's appearance is that she isn't ten years younger. Finally beginning to show her age, our Helen has finally reached the downside of her previously trumpeted mature sexuality. Not to say she doesn't have a decent figure for a woman her age, just that the papers are no longer going to be extolling her age-defying glamour. As Chris she is believable enough and sufficiently engaging for the audience to connect at the required level; not exactly cheering in the aisles but certainly not willing her downfall amidst the greed and glamour of Hollywood. Ciar?n Hinds generously underplays as her husband and pivot of the family hub, representing as he does the concern and reservation of the other husbands involved. Considering he's easily the biggest star in the movie his lack of ego belies a dependable and assured character actor who delivers the goods as always. Dare I even say I forgive him for Tomb Raider 2.

Unfortunately the side is let down by Julie Walters, a woman for whom I have an indescribable loathing that I cannot quantify. Playing the same "carefree but ultimately righteous and tough" female role model that presumably appeals to women of her age, her performance is a rehash of everything she's ever done before, Educating Rita aside. Unlike Mirren who performs much the same feat but is far less annoying, Annie's determination to reply to all her fan letters and general "grieving widow" act got right on my tits to the point where I will eat her face if I ever bump into her on the street. That is a promise Julie.

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Walters aside, the rest of the cast perform solid supporting duties, comprised as they are of British sitcom and drama regulars. Despite much of the cast fading into the background when the shoot moves to Hollywood, those characters kept to the fore are certainly compelling enough to hold the interest of the audience, and enough mild-mannered humour passes their lips to crack a smile on the most hardened of faces. That the resolution is a happy one should come as the least of surprises, and anyway that's not what the movie's about. Bookended by slightly abstract Tai-chi segments with the girls it's an ode to female empowerment that is sufficiently non-militant to ensure husbands wont be squirming in their seats at any point, except perhaps the away-players amongst you for whom the character of Ruth's husband may well ring true.

A lad in his mid-twenties like myself isn't exactly a member of this movie's target demographic, and as such I must consider that my own enjoyment of it will not necessarily represent that of, say, my mother, who would undoubtedly find it a hoot and a holler. Nonetheless I must say that I found it to be admirably accessible to a person such as myself without ever having to stoop to my levels of carnal desire; ie. I was not disappointed at the lack of tits or shagging.

If you liked The Full Monty I see no reason why you should not thoroughly enjoy this. If you are a female I see no reason why you should not thoroughly enjoy this. In fact regardless of who you are I see no reason why you should not thoroughly enjoy this. I did. It doesn't set any new precedencies or ignite the flames of my cinematic passion, but then nobody claimed it was going to. There will always be a place for light entertainment of this order, and as long as it maintains this kind of accomplished standard I shall not be complaining. It's worthiness is only highlighted by the pre-end credits notification that rather than raise enough to buy a sofa, the girls bought the hospital a new leukaemia ward. An inspiring story and certainly preferable to all that Jane Austen tosh that was doing the rounds five years ago.

From my now-established base on Isla Apathetica I award this movie 3 out of 5 Disko Units.

Nigel Cole
Cast list:
Helen Mirren (Chris)
Julie Walters (Annie)
Ciar?n Hinds (Rod)