Calendar Girls

(2003) *** Pg-13
108 min. Touchstone Pictures. Director: Nigel Cole. Cast: Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, John Alderton, Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie.

The British comedy-drama Calendar Girls bears a fair comparison to The Full Monty, which ushered in a new era of cheeky lower-middle-class comedies of self-empowerment. The surprise of the film is that it also bears fair comparison to pictures like A Face in the Crowd or the more recent Simone in exploring the maddening strain of illusive celebrity.

Calendar Girls details the story of a provincial Yorkshire Women's Institute (a grass roots social club serving the community). When Annie (Julie Walters) loses her husband to cancer, her best friend Chris (Dame Helen Mirren) hatches a notion. As Chris suffers through numbing and belittling WI activities, screenwriters Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi build effectively to the breakthrough the audience has already guessed. Chris notes, in turn, her son's post-pubescent interest in naked breasts and her mechanic's post-post-pubescent interest in pin-up calendars. Voila! Time for Chris and her friends to supplant the usual tea-and-crumpets shots in the annual WI calendar with tastefully tongue-in-cheek nude photography.

What begins as a bid for a new sofa for the cancer ward grows first in the women's minds, then in the WI's halls of power, the town, and eventually the world. In the gentle, life-affirming first third, the women warm to the idea of doffing their duds. At first, they deride the plan as "one of Chris's great ideas, like the vodka tasting night." But Annie's husband had written that "The flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire...the last phase is the most glorious," and the women take his words to heart, reinventing themselves as late-blooming sunflowers leaning toward their light.

Most films would build up to the dropping of robes and the subsequent success of the calendar, but those triumphant moments only take Calendar Girls up to its third act, which reflects on the insidiousness of fame. Hollywood and the tabloid media come calling, but the women discover they can't have one without the other. After deriding the head trips of the prissy WI authoritarians, Chris becomes a bit of a monster herself, abandoning her family in an emotionally vulnerable time and losing herself and Annie in the concrete jungle of a Hollywood backlot. Eventually, the girls find a way to balance their sassy spirits with the peace and centeredness they deserve (represented by hilltop tai chi sessions).

Director Nigel Cole (Saving Grace) takes a few missteps: a couple of the small roles are allowed to go a bit pop-eyed, and a key conflict between Mirren and husband Ciaran Hinds is given frustratingly expedient short shrift. But Cole makes a great flower arranger with his core cadre of lovably flushed, vulnerable but lion-hearted "calendar girls" (Linda Bassett, Celia Imrie, Annette Crosby, and Penelope Wilton, supporting crack work by the great Mirren and Walters). Calendar Girls scores by successfully tackling both the euphoria and fallout of this largely fictionalized but essentially true story.

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