Middle-aged best friends Annie Clarke (Julie Walters) and Chris Haper (Helen Mirren) belong to a branch of the Women's Institute in North Yorkshire. Their lives change when Annie's husband John (John Alderton) dies of leukemia. Feeling the need to do something positive, Annie and Chris come up with the idea of producing a nude calendar that subverts the conservative image of Women's Institute activities. Hoping just to raise a few pounds for the local hospital, Annie and Chris are amazed when the calendar and its models become national media sensations. Success takes them to Hollywood where the Calendar Girls appear on the Jay Leno Show. A rift develops when Annie accuses Chris of selling out to commercialism and Chris accuses Annie of becoming obsessed with her grieving widow status.
Review by Richard Kuipers:
When it comes to extracting humour from embarrassment about naked bodies and gender roles, no-one does it better than the British. All that class-consciousness and stitched-up repression worked wonders for The Full Monty and Billy Elliott and is used to winning effect in the mostly delightful Calendar Girls.
By observing the unwritten law that demands Julie Walters be present whenever cameras roll in Yorkshire and surrounding her with a dream cast of British character actresses, Calendar Girls succeeds in being funny and moving until it flies off to Hollywood for a somewhat disappointing final reel. Until then, this is warm-hearted and touching as the two rebels decide there has to be more to life in the Women's Institute than lectures on the history of broccoli and cake-baking competitions. Like most good comedies, this one is driven by an underlying sadness that gives purpose to the humour. John Alderton is only on screen briefly as Annie's dying husband John but his heroic and dignified spirit remains present in everything that follows. The connection between his brave exit and the women's courage in taking their clothes off is one of the great strengths of Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi's screenplay.
With its heart and soul firmly in place in the opening stanzas, director Nigel Cole lets these fabulous females loose and the results are glorious for about an hour. Mirren - with a long and distinguished body of nude work in her resume - revels in the conditions as a fifty-something tantalised by the thought of being sexy and glamorous again. Walters is the perfect foil as the stoic, gutsy Annie and supporting cast members Linda Bassett, Penelope Wilton, Annette Crosbie and Celia Imre are perfect as the accomplices. Although the men don't get much of a look-in (and why should they in this case) Ciaran Hinds is wonderfully sympathetic as Chris' husband Rod and the great veteran Graham Crowden scores one of the best lines when he opens a newspaper at the breakfast table with wife Jesse (Annette Crosbie). It's a small moment but achingly funny and indicative of the generous spirit at work in this crowd-pleaser. Once the women become media celebrities the film dips noticeably.
A trip to Hollywood to appear on the Jay Leno show and a few nasty encounters with commercial exploitation of their fame strips much of the Yorkshire feeling away. A rift between Annie and Chris looks tacked on simply to manufacture conflict that will inevitably be resolved in a warm and fuzzy glow. It's as if the script itself is succumbing to the kind of contrived situations a Hollywood version of the same story might have produced. The LA segments hurt but do not ruin Calendar Girls. The film has established such goodwill that it's able to survive the trough and land safely back in Yorkshire for the final chapter in an irrepressibly charming tale. The real women of Rylstone and District Women's Institute (all names and places have been changed in the film) raised over £600,000 for medical research. This is a fitting and funny tribute to their courage.
Review by Louise Keller:
A heart-warming and bittersweet film about friendship and courage, Calendar Girls is a true-to-life story that is inspiring to both young and old. Armed with an economical script and an ensemble cast of wonderful women, director Nigel Cole has created a rich and complex film that highlights not only the mischievous, playful nature of these fifty-something women, but also delves into deeper issues, including a total re-evaluation of priorities. And what a cast it is, headed by two fabulous women, in the shapely forms of Helen Mirren and Julie Waters, who lead us on a journey of emotions.
We first meet the women of the picturesque village of Knapely at their weekly Women’s Institute Meeting, where the attributes of broccoli, baking perfect sponges and flower arrangements are the central focus. Prompted by the personal tragedy that affects not just Annie, but the whole close-knit group, Chris gets her left-of-field idea to raise enough money to buy a comfortable settee for the local hospital when she sees a bare-breasted calendar on the grease-stained garage wall of the local mechanic.
From that moment onwards, there’s no turning back, and apart from convincing the women to strip, there’s the National Federation of the Women’s Institute to contend with. Remembering the sincere words of Annie’s late-husband John as he compared women to flowers whose ‘last phase is always the most glorious’, the women search for the right photographer who will turn their nakedness into art. When they finally look beyond the poodle snapper and orchid expert who delights in photographing butterflies, they discover the right one, and in their naivety believe that they can actually have all the photographs taken without the photographer even being in the same room. Armed with courage couched in wine bottles, the women gather together for the monumental shoot, the consequences of which are beyond their wildest dreams. Of course, the extraordinary response of both the media and the general public opens yet another can of worms. ‘You’re nude in the Telegraph… can you pass the bacon,’ says one matter-of-fact husband as he reads the papers over breakfast.
But raising money this way also raises eyebrows, and friendships are put to the test, as are marriages and relationships with teenage sons. The dream trip to Hollywood becomes not only the icing on the cake, but the turning point at which Annie and Chris both re-evaluate their lives and friendship. Guaranteed to move you to laughter and tears, Calendar Girls are a delight - from Miss January to Miss December.
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CALENDAR GIRLS (PG)
CAST: Helen Mirren, Merryn Owen, Ted Robbins, Julie Walters, John Alderton, Ciarán Hinds, Celia Imrie, Geraldine James, Ciaran Hinds
PRODUCER: Nick Barton, Suzanne Mackie
DIRECTOR: Nigel Cole
SCRIPT: Tim Firth, Juliette Towhidi
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Ashley Rowe
EDITOR: Michael Parker
MUSIC: Patrick Doyle
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Martin Childs
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: BVI
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 9, 2003
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: BVHE
VIDEO RELEASE: April 7, 2004