- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

The fresh and scenically distinctive “Calendar Girls” unfolds in an attractive Yorkshire town called Knapely, where members of the local Women’s Institute, a service club with chapters throughout the United Kingdom, become national best-sellers and fleeting celebrities by collaborating, surreptitiously, on a wistful nude calendar.

It’s been an annual tradition of the Knapely club to publish calendars that celebrate homemaking and gardening skills. Matching this emphasis with discreet nude poses by a dozen respectable middle-aged women, who resolve to subordinate modesty to playful and charitable motives, results in a windfall for a praiseworthy cause: a building fund earmarked for the local hospital.

The movie trifles agreeably with a real-life caper that occurred three years ago. It was perpetrated by clubwomen in the authentic Yorkshire town of Rylston, which has not served as the exact double for Knapely but isn’t far away.

Some of the original “calendar girls” appear in an early sequence as competitors in a regional bake-off, cast as justifiably suspicious clubwomen from another town. The episode illustrates the devious side of a principal character, Helen Mirren’s Chris, who operates a nursery with her husband, Rod (Ciaran Hinds), and doesn’t mind stirring things up and cutting corners. Her impulsive, troublemaking tendencies are viewed as an indispensable creative stimulant for the calendar brainstorm, balanced by the caution and introspection of her best friend, Annie (Julie Walters), whose marital loss stirs fund-raising aspirations beyond the ordinary.

Annie is widowed when her husband, John (John Alderton in a lovely short-lived performance), succumbs to leukemia. Annie and her friends are so grateful to the hospital staff for their consideration during the ordeal that they desire to repay the kindness in some fashion. The idea of spicing up the annual calendar, especially in a way that would harmonize with John’s reflections on the charms of Yorkshire women and Yorkshire flowers, emerges as an outrageous money-making possibility, evidently suggested to Chris when she discovers a nude magazine tucked away in the room of her teenage son, Jem (John-Paul MacLeod). Eventually, enough women talk themselves into the idea of realizing something a little outrageous.

The best single comedy sequence documents the shooting session, cleverly arranged by a local photographer named Lawrence (Philip Glenister in a uniquely chivalrous characterization) to protect the modesty of his shyest camera subjects and reinforce group solidarity. Patiently, he makes his way through 12 women in dressing gowns. He has prepared the setups in advance and enters to take his place behind the camera only when the women feel comfortably positioned behind or upon props that mask blatant revelations. Annie, for example, is seen from a reverse angle while seated at the piano, looking back over her shoulder in a cheerful way. And a very flattering pose it is for Miss Walters.

The resistance to the Rylston effort was never formidable, and the filmmakers can be detected twisting themselves into a few knots while inventing potential conflicts and scandals. Quite a bit of arbitrary fuss is generated about defying the local club leadership and then a possibly disapproving national leadership. The only real surprise in all this is that the Knapely chapter president, Marie, played by Geraldine James, fails to join up belatedly as Calendar Girl No. 12.

The material starts to come unglued during a post-notoriety jaunt to Los Angeles for promotional appearances. The excursion stokes Chris’ hunger for the limelight and drives wedges among the Knapely group. Evidently, such an aftermath was part of the real story, but director Nigel Cole has made Knapely feel so desirable and idyllic in most respects that the Hollywood aftermath feels like a dreadful blunder. It’s as if the movie were suddenly promoting itself rather than keeping faith with the women who inspired the movie. When the prodigals return to Knapely and patch up their differences, the repairs don’t come a moment too soon.

***

TITLE: “Calendar Girls”

RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting nudity and profanity; humorous sexual allusions and innuendo)

CREDITS: Directed by Nigel Cole. Written by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth. Cinematography by Ashley Rowe.

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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