Movie Review by Neil Ryan
Starring: Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Penelope Wilton, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie
Director: Nigel Cole
Well well well. Lightning strikes twice. First THE FULL MONTY and now CALENDAR GIRLS. On the evidence of these two comedic dramas the naïve viewer could be forgiven for thinking that Yorkshire is full of the most unlikely individuals willing to get their kit off at the drop of a hat (although in both films a hat is often the only item of clothing that is retained). CALENDAR GIRLS is inspired by the real-life exploits of the Rylstone & District Women’s Institute who shed their inhibitions for a charity calendar in 1999; the basic premise has been leavened slightly to allow fictional storylines to inject some dramatic tension, and the whole shebang is filmed amidst Yorkshire’s stunning scenic beauty in order to entice the audience to buy into the notion of Britain as bucolic idyll.
Helen Mirren stars as Chris, a feisty realist who initiates the idea of the calendar after her best friend Annie (Julie Walters)’s husband John dies of leukaemia. Chris suggests that they and some of their genteel middle class WI friends pose for the calendar whilst indulging in traditional WI activities (jam making, knitting, etc) with all proceeds going to the hospital that treated John. Various obstacles have to be overcome: the reticence of the models to disrobe, prudish opposition from within the WI hierarchy, the financial burden of printing the calendars, and the need for a competent yet cheap photographer. But the combination of Annie’s quiet determination to celebrate John’s memory and Chris’s headstrong resolve ensures that blouses are unbuttoned and film is exposed and, quite unexpectedly, the ladies’ venture proves to be far more successful then they anticipated. As the story of these well-heeled immodest English roses gains international credence pressure is brought to bear on the women’s relationships with each other and within their respective families.
CALENDAR GIRLS is very well made, witty, heart-warming, and blessed with a cast that is packed with notable British character actors. The script will have audiences consistently chortling and gentlemen of a certain age will enjoy the, ahem, artistic merits of the photographer’s craft. Despite containing echoes of recent British successes (THE FULL MONTY, BRASSED OFF, BILLY ELLIOT) in its mix of comedy, drama, and no-nonsense Northern nous, CALENDAR GIRLS has less measured cynicism than these films. In fact (whilst the subject matter may seem to be obvious fodder for the nudge-nudge tradition of the CARRY-ON’s) what you get with CALENDAR GIRLS is more of a throwback to the days of Ealing: there is a philosophy of optimism, kinship, and homeliness about the whole venture. There are no bad apples in this film, bright red post boxes sit untroubled by graffiti on street corners, and when the ladies perform their tai chi exercises atop a hill surrounded by a magnificent vista of undulating Dales’ countryside the whole audience will breathe a wistful sigh and hum a chorus of ‘Jerusalem’.