Calendar Girls (2003)

If we’re compiling a list of pinup models for a charity calendar, Helen Mirren would definitely be on my list. So it makes sense to me that she should take the lead on Calendar Girls, a film about women of a certain age who decide to pose nude to raise funds for a cancer charity. Based on a true story, it recounts how a group of Yorkshire women, namely the ladies of the Knapely Women’s Institute, went from housewives to international stars after daring to show some skin.

British folks aren’t going to get their kit off that easily though, at least this is the lesson I learned from The Full Monty. For Chris (Mirren) and her best friend, Annie (Julie Walters), the death of Annie’s husband (John Alderton) from cancer is enough motivation. Both are members of the local women’s group, Chris reluctantly so, and are inspired to take a chance on their own tastefully nude calendar. This fundraising idea is not just an alterative to the group’s traditional Yorkshire scenes calendar but also a much needed diversion from the WI’s scintillating lectures on broccoli, tea towels, and the like. Of course, some of the more conservative members prefer gazing at country bridges than at wrinkled navels, and Chris and Annie face pushback from the local chairwoman (Geraldine James).

The film offers up plenty of devilish moments, and it’s funniest exactly where you’d expect it to be. The women, who also include Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Annette Crosbie, and Linda Bassett, enlist a skeptical hospital porter (Philip Glenister) to take the photos. Unfortunately, they also don’t want him anywhere near their naked bodies. Things get tricky when he has to direct them from afar, instructing them just how to angle a pair of pruning shears or a set of glazed buns to hide their lady parts.

The laughs ease up once the calendar goes into production, and national and international media get ahold of their story. Fame starts to take its toll, bringing out Chris’s diva tendencies. Her need to be at the center of attention strains her relationship with Annie, whom she accuses of being too much a martyr for the cause. Chris’s family life suffers too as she leaves her husband (Ciarán Hinds) and son (John-Paul Macleod) in her wake.

The tone of this third act isn’t enough to overwhelm the rest of the film, which remains a hilarious and light-hearted movie. It helps that the women are all top class, a gorgeous, cheeky set that I wouldn’t mind shadowing, well, forever. Mirren might not have a regal bearing here, but she’s still a dizzying force. It’s no wonder Hinds’s character, a true feminist, is utterly smitten. Imrie’s saucy streak was a highlight as well. The movie probably reinforces everything casual American viewers think about England. It certainly seems like a land of Knapely-esque villages where no problem is so big that it can’t be solved with a picnic on the Moors and a fulsome rendition of “Jerusalem.” But damn, what a fun place to be if only for a while.

Released: 2003
Prod: Nick Barton
Dir: Nigel Cole
Writer: Tim Firth, Juliette Towhidi
Cast: Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Geraldine James, Philip Glenister, Ciarán Hinds, John Alderton, George Costigan, John-Paul Macleod
Time: 108 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019