This is one of those little films that the English seem to excel at, the filmmakers taking a small, inconsequential subject and making us care and respond to it. "Calendar Girls," the 2003 film version of the real-life experiences of a group of Yorkshire housewives, is beautifully made, well acted, charming, engaging, humorous, and heartwarming. More important, it is not just another woman's picture. It reaches out and touches some universal feelings in all of us that should make it entertaining across both genders.
The stroy is about an actual group of middle-aged British women who decided to pose nude for a calendar in 1999. But it's not as naughty as it sounds. The calendar photographs were all very tasteful and discreet, and the cause was worthy, at first to make enough money to buy furniture for a hospital as a memorial to one of their number's recently deceased husband and later to raise money for leukemia research. Their goals were realized beyond their wildest dreams.
The women in the story are members of the National Women's Institute of Knapely, the WI, a prim-and-proper organization of ladies who meet each month for self improvement and to hear lectures on bird watching and rug making and such. Every year the group does a calendar, usually pictures of local bridges and such. One of the members, Chris, decides it's time they did something more substantial in order to produce serious money for the hospital, and so she initiates her own, unconventional calendar idea.
The movie is at its best when it's describing the reactions of the various women to the notion of posing nude and when it's engaged in the preliminary actions leading up to the photography. Naturally, the women are reticent about taking their clothes off, no matter that most of their bodies are to be hidden behind house plants and cooking utensils. The second half of the movie bogs down a bit in the public reaction to their published calendar, their subsequent celebrity when the calendar catches on, and their trip to Hollywood and a "Tonight Show" appearance with Jay Leno.
While most of the film is a delight, it's also hampered by attempting to cover too much territory in too short a time. There's the friendship of the two main characters, Chris and Annie, to consider; the death of Annie's husband; the problems Chris's son has in adjusting to his mother posing nude; several spousal responses, including a wholly extraneous affair for one of them; besides the aforementioned Hollywood adventure. I suspect the film might have been better off focusing on one main character and exploring more fully her personal involvement in the matter.
The movie stars Helen Mirren as Chris and Julie Walters as Annie, the two best friends who concoct the calendar scheme, and both actresses are wonderful. Mirren, of course, is always a pleasure to watch, whether it's the tough Scotland Yard Inspector Jane Tennison in "Prime Suspect" or the slinky sorceress Morgana in "Excalibur." In "Calendar Girls" she was nominated for Golden Globe and Golden Satellite awards for her performance. Ms. Walters I remember best from "Educating Rita" and more recently as Mrs. Weasley in the "Harry Potter" series. For her sensitive portrayal in "Calendar Girls" she, too, was nominated for a Golden Satellite award.
"Calendar Girls" has been unfairly compared to the earlier British comedy "The Full Monty," which was about middle-aged men deciding to do a strip show. That both films deal with similar subject matter, it seems to me, is immaterial to the success of either film. They are both funny, entertaining, and uplifting in their own unique ways, and the fact that they are alike in some respects is neither here nor there. They work, which is all that matters.
I can't leave without saying a word about the story's setting because it accounts for a good part of the film's pleasure. The movie was shot almost entirely on location in several of the quaintest parts of Yorkshire in northern England. If you've ever seen the long-running British TV series "Last of the Summer Wine," you'll recognize and appreciate the countryside. It's tranquil and picturesque, to say the least, and it stands in stark contrast to the crowded, glitzy, cheap, concrete-glass-and-aluminum universe of Hollywood depicted later in the narrative.
All in all, "Calendar Girls" comes off as an affable, amusing, and highly diverting piece of typical British whimsy. That all of it really happened is almost beside the point but charming in itself. If the movie seems perhaps a bit too cute and comfortable, so be it; it's a small price to pay for such sweet entertainment.
To date, the real calendar has raised over half a million pounds for leukemia research.
The picture quality is splendid, thanks to the cinematography of Ashley Rowe and Oliver Curtis, the beauty of the Yorkshire countryside, and the excellence of Buena Vista's transfer. The colors are radiant, capturing the landscapes in slightly muted, fairy-tale tones of luster and brilliance. Flesh tones are natural, hues are deep and solid, and definition is as good as one could want. Grain is largely absent and halos and pixilation are a memory of other discs, with only some minor line flutter a subliminal concern. It's a lovely image to look at, picture-postcard perfect.
Surprisingly, for a film of such relatively quiet grace and decorum, the Dolby Digital audio is vibrant, alive, and kicking in all five-point-one speakers. Not only are there wide dynamic and frequency ranges with a solid bass thump, the rear channels come to life in unexpected ways, from musical ambience enhancement to the sounds of crowds applauding and birds twittering away. Add to this a notable clarity and some pinpoint accuracy in the surround speakers, and you have sonic reproduction usually afforded only to summer blockbusters.
There are only a few items on the Bonus Materials menu, short and sweet like the feature film itself. The first item is a fifteen-minute documentary, "The Naked Truth," that introduces us to the real ladies behind the photographs and describes their adventures, pretty much as pictured in the movie. The second item is a six-minute promo, "Creating the Calendar," that tells us a little something about the making of the film. Then, there are three deleted scenes of a minute or so each, an amazingly stingy eleven scene selections, a few Sneak Peeks at other Buena Vista films, and a paper insert listing the chapters. English and French are the spoken languages involved, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Critics sometimes complain when a film blatantly manipulates an audience, but when it's done with skill and for an appropriate purpose, it's what good filmmaking is all about. Yes, "Calendar Girls" manipulates its viewers, but I welcomed its ability to make me smile, frown, and cheer. The movie is warmhearted and satisfying on almost every count, and while there may be parts that don't hold up to scrutiny as well as others, the resultant whole is more than welcome. I enjoyed "Calendar Girls" immensely.