Movie Review

 

Calendar Girls

Production Company: Touchstone
Director: Nigel Cole
Principals: Julie Walters, Helen Mirren
Rating: PG-13 (brief nudity, some language and drug-related material)

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMCom) -- Calendar Girls is a rarity: a film that’s better than its commercial. If you’ve seen any ads or previews for this film, you may have been led to expect cheap laughs and snickering off-color humor. But in the flesh (so to speak), this film delivers a warm, human, uplifting retelling of the true story of some proper middle-aged English ladies who launched a famous fund-raiser to help one of their friends. And in case I didn’t mention it—they did it naked.

Annie and husband, John face troubled times as he battles leukemia. © 2003 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
Julie Walters plays Annie, whose husband, John, is dying of leukemia. Following his death, Annie’s high-spirited best friend, Chris (Helen Mirren), rallies members of their local women’s club, the Women's Institute, to raise money for leukemia research in John’s honor. Chris suggests the Women’s Institute use their annual calendar as the fundraiser, but can’t see their typical calendar theme of homemade jams, knitting and “the flowers of Yorkshire” raising the money they want. When Chris sees a girlie calendar on the wall of the local garage, she comes up with a calendar idea that just might sell. The ladies will be photographed nude, discreetly posed in traditional club activities like gardening or baking, with flowerpots and other props covering just enough to keep the photos PG-13.

For these prim and proper women “of a certain age,” the proposal presents a great dilemma. Some are morally opposed, or concerned about how the rest of their small town will react. Others doubt anyone would pay for such a thing, and still others are too insecure and body conscious to even consider it. But John’s words, from a message read after his death, spur them on. “The flowers of Yorkshire are like its women,” he wrote. “Each phase is more beautiful than the last and the final phase is the most glorious of all.” Buoyed by that thought, enough women step forward to make the photo shoot, and the calendar idea is a go. The result is a series of ever-so-slightly racy portraits that show these brave ladies as the truly glorious and mature flowers they are. More sassy than sexy, the calendar celebrates their inner beauty more than their outer beauty.

After the death of her husband, Annie (left) and her best friend, Chris (right) plan a calendar in which they and their friends - all over-fifty - bare all. © 2003 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
But the calendar takes on a life of its own, and the ladies learn that even actions with lofty goals can have unintentional and unpleasant consequences. Husbands, family and friends, who were once supportive, become less enthusiastic once the calendar hits newsstands. It’s a monumental hit, raising nearly a million pounds, and creating a media frenzy, making minor celebrities of the “Calendar Girls.” But, while some, like Chris, thrive in the spotlight, others like Annie sense the fame and attention have led them off course. The intoxicating effect of sudden celebrity strains friendships in the group, particularly during a press junket to America. But in the end, friends and families are reunited in Yorkshire, with a renewed sense of what motivated them in the first place: love, friendship and the desire to help others.

Calendar Girls is a masterpiece of reverse casting. The normally comic Walters brings a touching depth to Annie, while Mirren, best known for serious work like Gosford Park, shines as the madcap, rule-bending Chris. The beauty of the film is how it adroitly avoids caricature, and makes each of the ladies a fully realized person. It takes care to help us get to know these people, and then empathize, and most importantly learn with them as they attempt to do great good through unconventional means.

The women of Knapely prepare to bare all for their photographer, Lawrence. © 2003 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.
What exactly do they—and we—learn? One lesson is that love is an action, as much as a feeling. They loved Annie and agonized over her loss, but were not content to leave it at the purely emotional level. They took action to help their friend, honor her loss, and help others. They also learned that it can take real courage to stick out your neck, leave your comfort zone and commit to a course of action that may be controversial, against the majority or simply unconventional. You may question their judgment, but you can’t question their courage. Finally, they learned that sometimes you’ve got to shake things up to revitalize your group. Their Women’s Institute had become stale and stodgy in their approach to philanthropy. It’s often said that the seven last words of any organization, whether it’s a club, a school, a business or a church are “We’ve never done it that way before.” Calendar Girls shows us what happens when brave and compassionate people think outside of the box.

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Maryland.



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