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Non-Review Review: Calendar Girls

Calendar Girls is that sort of wonderfully quirky comedy that only the British can pull off. Based on the true story of a bunch of Yorkshire middle-aged women who stripped off for a calendar to raise funds for the local hospital, it’s a wonderfully wry and witty sort of tale that can really be split into two halves: the first exploring the societal pressures and prejudices which surrounded the construction of the calendar and the second an exploration of the consequences of the fundraiser’s success. While the first half is certainly more entertaining than the second, it’s a charming and endearing little film.

Get a load of those buns...

No landscape in cinematic history seens to scream “old fashioned and conservative” quite like the quaint English village. Sure, there are more remote and less civilised locations, but nowhere seems quite so comfortably staid as the small tightly-knit community with its little bridges over local streams, rolling hills and old grey two-story houses. There’s even something inherently traditional in the British country accent, perhaps moreso than its regal or urban counterparts. As such, Yorkshire seems the perfect setting for a story like this.

The movie sees several (eleven, actually) local ladies stripping off and having their photos taken for a classy calendar, the hope being that they can raise enough money to purchase a couch for the local hospital’s relatives’ room. It’s a sweet sentiment, and one the movie balances well. Comedies of manners are something the British have always done particularly well, so the types of socially awkward situation caused by women of a certain age undressing for photographs which will be distributed nationally has a wonderful appeal. Despite its premise and the rather sad events which prompt the calendar, the movie is never to serious or sweet. Similarly, it also avoids comedic excess, never seeming to harsh or mean in its exploration of the topic.

Naturally, the project draws quite a bit of attention. Some are hostile to the idea of such a calendar drawing various communities and organisations into disrepute (“we don’t do nudety,” one character observes, “but we do do art”), while others are predatory, picking on the newly-famous ladies for their own ends. The film is much stronger in its first half, as it explores the logistics of putting the calendar together. Here the characters (brought to live by a slew of talented actresses like Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and Penelope Wilton) each seem real and organic. The calendar is more than a fundraiser, it’s an act of defiance and rebellion against the boring sameness of the area, the monotony of lectures on broccoli or carpetry – indeed, one character is openly mocked for daring to suggest the women could do something different (“vodka tasting”, no less), rather than conforming to the repetive schedule of mind-numbing events.

The problem is that the second half is not nearly so clever or interesting. The characters, who were well drawn in the first half, develop an irrational insecurity and need for conflict in the second half. Despite the fact the first half of the film was about resisting the compulsion to conform, the second half conforms to the standard “after they were famous” narrative remarkably well. The movie hints at more interesting things it could be exploring – the predatory nature of the British media, which has never really been taken properly to task; the probable exploitation of these women by forces far more commercial than the local beer company – but instead gives us the notion of internal schism. This is Calendar Girls by way of the Beatles, as the two leading minds come to logger heads over what the point of it all is, with jealousy and bitterness eating away at them. It’s a shame the movie goes down such a path. It doesn’t quite derail the movie, but it does offer a somewhat disappointing conclusion.

I mentioned above that the cast is phenomenal. And they are. Helen Mirren is incredible as Chrissy, the rebel without a cause and logistical mastermind behind the calendar. Mirren works her magic in the role, even when the last half hour reduces the previously complex character to two-dimensional archetype. Julie Walters is also impressive in her turn – as are all the ladies. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot a very young Philip Glenister from Life on Mars as the photographer, in a much more timid role. And Ciaran Hinds offers solid support as Chrissy’s husband.

The movie claims to be based upon a true story – and its basic premise is true: the death of one of the women’s husbands did prompt the production of the calendar to raise funds to support the local hospital, and it was  huge success. However, a lot of the conventional movie trappings have been added in as well, but most of these can be justified due to the necessities of producing an interesting film. For example, the first half would not have been nearly so interesting had the local Women’s Institute been entirely supporting of the project (as they were in reality) – in fact, most of the film’s comedy comes from the fact that the women involved are gleefully subverting social norms. The second half also takes some dramatic liberties with the internal group dynamic. If you’re interested in comparing fact and fiction, I found a handy guide here.

Calendar Girls is a very good movie. It’s well put together and well-acted. The first half is significantly more interesting than the second, but it’s still a film well worth your time.

2 Responses

  1. This is nice one. The British DO do it well, and Mirren and Walters are lovely.

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