Laura Clifford Robin CliffordIn 1999, a member of the Rylstone Women's Institute in North Yorkshire's husband was diagnosed with leukemia. In order to raise funds for cancer research, a small group came up with an idea that was novel at the time - ordinary women posing nude for a calendar. They were astonished by their success and the worldwide attention their gambit received and now their tale has been adapted for the screen as "Calendar Girls."
As five of the original monthly models did not agree to be involved with the film, Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth focus on a half dozen fictional characters adapting the story for the screen. Maybe those five realized that their fundraising idea, which has been copied since by groups from a Maine theater to Tasmanian grandmothers, had had its day. "Calendar Girls" plays like a McMovie version of "The Full Monty" (which itself may have been inspired by the women of Yorkshire).
Chris (Helen Mirren, "Gosford Park," playing a fictionalized Tricia Stewart) and Annie (Julie Walters, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," standing in for Angela Baker) are best friends who make it through their local WI meetings by giggling at the overly serious presentations by the milk board and broccoli experts. Chris is the rebellious, irreverent type who turns disasters into jokes, as evidenced by her acceptance speech when winning a WI ribbon for a store bought cake. When Annie's beloved husband John (John Alderton) sickens and dies from cancer, Chris comes up with the idea of replacing the WI's usually dry as dust calendar subject with nudes of themselves to raise money to replace the uncomfortable visitor's couch in the local hospital. They get four more to go along with them - Cora (Linda Bassett, "The Hours"), the club pianist and church organist with a hidden wild side; Celia (Celia Imrie, "Bridget Jones's Diary"), the athletic golfer proud of her figure; Jessie (Annette Crosbie, "Shooting Fish"), the impish senior of the group and Ruth (Penelope Wilton, "Iris"), who joins belatedly in an attempt to excite her traveling salesman husband. They defend their idea to their local WI chairwoman Maryam by saying that they were inspired by a poem written by John, who humorously described the older women of Yorkshire to flowers.
Nigel Cole directs by the numbers. We have the giggling photo shoot (only Mirren actually exposes herself on screen) intercut with the ladies' men gathering at the local pub. We have the whirlwind of the attendant attention, including the fantasy of Jay Leno's "The Tonight Show" putting up six individual non-celebrity guests at multi-floored suites. And of course, there's the inevitable conflict between the best friends (not to mention the soggy drama of a national WI meeting) which must be overcome to wrap with a happy ending. Familial reactions to the heavily publicized nudity run from the supportive (Ciarán Hinds, down to earth as Chris's husband) to the amusing ('You're nude in the Telegraph, dear.' matter-of-factly from Jessie's husband) to a screed for feminism (Ruth's husband Eddie's (George Costigan, "Shirley Valentine") disgust is a cover for his affair) to the woefully underdeveloped (Chris's son Jim (John-Paul Macleod) is given an embarrassment subplot that begins lamely and goes nowhere).
Mirren is OK as the take-charge Chris, but she's clearly playing, rather than becoming, a character. Walters summons up real emotion as Annie, particularly in several heartfelt scenes with the equally fine and self-effacing Alderton. The other girls are all playing types, although Bassett milks the most out of her delight at having a chance to be 'bad' once again.
"Calendar Girls" doesn't suffer from the tweeness of the likes of "Saving Grace" or "Waking Ned Devine," but then again, it rarely raises a laugh. This extraordinary group of homemakers have been relegated to cookie-cutter filmmaking.
Robin did not see this film.
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