Dir: Nigel Cole. UK. 2003. 108mins
The timing could not be more auspicious for Calendar Girls. A summer of under-performing one hit wonders suggests an audience that is weary of empty spectacle and hungry for old-fashioned entertainment. Calendar Girls isn't cutting edge. It can't boast state-of-the-art effects. It hasn't been inspired by a comic book or culled from a theme park attraction. It merely offers the increasingly rare pleasure of a human interest heartwarmer with an emotional appeal that is universal. Milking all the humour and poignancy from the true story of the Yorkshire women who posed naked for a charity calendar, this is a copper-bottomed British crowd-pleaser in the tradition of Billy Elliot and The Full Monty. Its initial appeal might be to an older, female demographic but enthusiastic word of mouth and repeat business could create the kind of slow-burning box-office pattern previously seen with My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A powerful buzz has been building since market screenings at Cannes ahead of a UK release on September 5 and a US opening for Christmas Day.
Front page news in Britain and other parts of the world, the ladies were members of ultra conservative organisation the Women's Institute, who defied their image of stuffy respectability to bare all for a calendar that eventually raised over £500,000 for leukaemia research. Written by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth, this fictionalised account of the story focuses on the relationship between Chris (Mirren) and Annie (Walters), best friends and conspirators in mischief as they endure the worthy but dull Women's Institute meetings in their rural village.
When Annie's husband John (Alderton) dies of leukaemia, Chris proposes an alternative fund-raising calendar that goes beyond the pretty rustic scenes of age old tradition. Soon, she has enlisted the women of the village to pose naked among the familiar Women's Institute artefacts of home baking, jam and cut flowers in a tasteful calendar that will reveal them in all the glories of maturity "grey hair, cellulite, the works".
Inevitably, the decision to be naked exposes more than flesh; it becomes a matter of vulnerability, pride and empowerment for all who participate. As the calendar becomes a global sensation, the women even enjoy a whirlwind taste of fame and the Hollywood high life.
A canny mixture of laughter and tears, the screenplay constantly undercuts sentimentality with a cheeky one-liner. Humour arises naturally from the messy emotions and relationships of everyday lives. There may be idyllic views of rural England and farcical developments along the way but everything remains firmly grounded in reality even as events spiral out of control.
Previously best known for Saving Grace, director Nigel Cole reveals a surer touch here, maintaining pace and audience concern even as the story appears to run out of natural dramatic conflict. He also provides a wonderful showcase for a collection of the most talented actresses in British cinema.
Julie Walters brings the shining light of truth to every role she plays and her sense of down-to-earth grief and caution expertly balances the impulsive, reckless instincts of Helen Mirren's more playful Chris. It seems entirely fitting that their deeply felt double-act is at the heart of a film saluting love, pluck and the power of true friendship.
Prod cos: Harbour Pictures, Buena Vista International (UK), Touchstone Pictures
UK/int'l dist: Buena Vista International
US dist: Buena Vista
Prods: Nick Barton, Suzanne Mackie
Scr: Juliette Towhidi, Tim Firth
Cinematography: Ashley Rowe
Prod des: Martin Childs
Ed: Michael Parker
Music: Patrick Doyle
Main cast: Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Penelope Wilton, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie, Linda Bassett, Ciaran Hinds, John Alderton, Philip Glenister