Touchstone Pictures // 2003 // 108 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // May 17th, 2004
They dropped everything for a good cause.
Middle-aged ladies get a grrl-power movie of their own, and it's even based on a true story. This isn't the kind of earnest message film that's doomed by the weight of its own good intentions, however. Calendar Girls is just plain fun.
Life in the picturesque Yorkshire village of Knapely is pleasant, but placid to the point of paralysis. For members of the Women's Institute like the outspoken Chris (Helen Mirren, Prime Suspect) and her best friend Annie (Julie Walters, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), every Thursday evening is an exercise in staving off sleep in the face of an endless array of well-meaning and exquisitely dull speakers. This soporific routine is disrupted in the cruelest way possible when Annie's husband John (John Alderton, Upstairs, Downstairs) is stricken with leukemia.
Inspired both by John's words on the beauty of English women, and appalled by the prospect of another deadly dull WI fund-raising calendar, Chris and Annie hatch an audacious plan. Instead of contributing to the usual calendar of photographs of the village countryside, they will raise money in John's memory by posing nude in a calendar that will celebrate English womanhood in middle age.
Despite initial objections on the part of the WI president, Marie (Geraldine James), Chris and Annie are able to recruit enough willing friends to put together the calendar they envision. When it becomes a media sensation and they are thrust into instant celebrity, however, all of them must face unexpected consequences from their well-meant project. From domestic discord to fractured friendships, the ladies of Knapely village must draw upon all their survival instincts to emulate what had been John's favorite flower -- the sunflower -- by seeking and finding the light that exists, no matter how dark their surroundings seem.
Calendar Girls is like a breath of fresh English air wafting into the multiplex from the lush green meadows of Yorkshire. It's a pleasure to see such a fine ensemble of English actors, many of which are so familiar from imported British television series that they feel like old friends. It's a novelty to see a movie with a joyous, optimistic spirit that doesn't feel saccharine. And it's practically a miracle to find a movie whose main characters are all over the age of forty, each one of whom has a unique story and voice, and each of whom is presented as being important and interesting in his or her own right. The English seem to understand that middle age isn't an embarrassment, just a fact of life, like curly hair or an allergy to shellfish. Calendar Girls proves that life doesn't have to settle into dull routine just because of the number of candles on one's birthday cake.
Those who expect this film to be staid and coy are in for a pleasant surprise. Patrick Doyle's spirited score, featuring gospel-tinged piano, instantly sets the tone for a lively, entertaining story. This is a movie with fine comic writing and a cast experienced enough to time their delivery for maximum hilarity. The movie's set piece is of course the calendar shoot, in which we see both models and photographer fighting to overcome their discomfort and gradually (with the help of wine and esprit de corps) succeeding. As the ladies loosen up and begin to find their courage -- and their sense of humor -- their men congregate in the local pub to try to forget what is going on in the house down the lane. When the photographer's work is finally done, he totters into the presence of the waiting husbands and seizes the nearest glass of booze without bothering to ask permission. He's earned it.
The talented Helen Mirren, who seems to be moving from strength to strength at an age when most American actresses are struggling to find one decent film role, is an ideal choice for the movie's catalyst and standard bearer. As the irreverent Chris, she is given to snickers during serious lectures about the historical significance of dairy products, and her eye for an attractive man is undimmed (she wishes wistfully for the annual calendar to feature George Clooney). Those who know her mutter darkly about "another one of Chris's crazy ideas" when she comes up with the calendar scheme, so we know that even before her calendar crusade she must have been an irrepressible woman, if not perhaps a very organized one. Mirren's Chris is the best friend we should all be lucky enough to have -- the one who'll crack us up even during a eulogy. Her tart-tongued zeal is nicely balanced by the more gentle, warm, and shy personality of her best friend, Annie, whose still-beautiful eyes fill with pain as she watches her husband deteriorate but don't lose their capacity to light up at a great idea. These two nicely complementary personalities are surrounded by an enjoyable supporting cast of characters, including the self-possessed Celia (Celia Imrie, Bridget Jones's Diary), who is serenely proud of her (ahem!) attributes; the church organist, who bears some surprising relics of a wild youth; and a plain Jane who hopes to recapture her husband's straying attention.
The gentlemen tend to get overlooked in favor of this ebullient group of women, unfortunately; even the excellent Ciaran Hinds (Persuasion), as Chris's husband, Rod, takes a definite back seat. As if to apologize for this, the film introduces a series of jarringly ominous subplots about the negative consequences of the calendar ladies' success for the men in their lives: one husband reacts with anger to his wife's exposure; Chris's son, humiliated at the nature of his mother's celebrity, rebels in self-destructive ways; and Rod has to carry on their florist business by himself as Chris runs from photo shoot to press junket. The dire seriousness of the more somber plot developments is terribly out of place in such a sunny film, and the writers seem to tacitly admit this by resolving all of them abruptly, even dismissively. The tone of the film definitely suffers from this unevenness, and I felt more than a little manipulated by being led to worry so much about these issues when they were just going to be waved away. And is it just me, or is everyone else also sick of seeing films employ the tired old saw that a woman who finds success or celebrity outside the home will begin to neglect her husband and child? Indeed, the one serious consequence of the ladies' fame that I felt most obviously deserved addressing was ignored: the fact that the cause for which they made the calendar seemed to drop out of sight.
Overall, however, its ill-considered venture into gloomy territory aside, Calendar Girls is a wonderfully enjoyable movie experience. The film has been coupled with The Full Monty by some critics, and since both feature a brigade of Brits in the buff (by implication, at least), the comparison is probably inevitable. However, Calendar Girls is a distinct entity, not an attempt to cash in with a distaff version of Monty. Less gritty, it features a more idealized vision of English life, and there's no shadow of economic hardship over this picturesque village; it's significant that our heroines are driven to drop their drawers not out of desperate need for cash but out of charity and stirrings toward self-actualization. What I think does yoke both movies is the noteworthy fact that neither features the usual gym-toned twentysomethings American movies are so proud of parading au naturel. Thank goodness the British are here to remind us that normal, unglamorous people can appear in movies, can actually have lives worth filming, and can even (fancy that!) have something to offer moviegoers.
One of the great pleasures among the extra features on the disc is a 15-minute featurette in which some of the original calendar girls appear on camera to describe their real-life friendship and their experiences making the famous calendar. We even get glimpses of some of the original calendar photos with which to compare the film's re-creations. In a shorter but also enjoyable featurette the film actresses, director, and photographer talk about the sometimes nerve-wracking experience of making the film's version of the calendar. A handful of deleted scenes are present, including an unexpected Hollywood jam session and a hilarious sequence in which Chris belatedly delivers a floral arrangement to a funeral. And, most appropriately, a flower-shaped icon takes us to a page that tells us how to find out more about the fight against leukemia.
The design of the menus and packaging is colorful and charming. The main menu is a particularly attractive shower of souvenir photographs, ushered in by a replay of the film's final scene, which is both idyllic and funny but whose effect is dimmed by the picture's being stretched and distorted so that it will fill the entire screen. As for the audio and video throughout the film, there's little to carp about: the film is brand-new and looks it, with rich color and clear detail, and the only drawback to the audio is the sometimes impenetrable Yorkshire accent of most of the characters. Fortunately for us Americans, there are English subtitles.
As the old adage says, it's never too late to have a misspent youth. The characters in Calendar Girls, like the real women who inspired them, are persuasive proof that no matter how far past our twenties we get, we can still strike out in new directions.
If you're seeking a comedy that relies not on scatological humor but on personality and witty writing, you should run right out to check out Calendar Girls. It's particularly enjoyable for those of us who sometimes find it difficult to relate to the impossibly beautiful creatures Hollywood insists are the norm, but even aside from its positive messages, it's just a fun time. If there really is a village like Knapely, I want to retire there -- even if it means joining the Women's Institute and listening to lectures on broccoli.
The spunky ladies of Knapely are guilty of causing quite a stir, but none of their exposure is at all indecent. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2004 Amanda DeWees; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* "The Naked Truth" Featurette
* "Creating the Calendar" Featurette
* Deleted Scenes