Calendar Girls Review
In the sleepy Yorkshire village of Knapeley, Chris (Helen Mirren) and Annie (Julie Walters) have to keep a straight face, or even awake, during yet another riveting Women’s Institute talk on rugs or the history of the Milk Marketing Board. But when Annie’s husband John dies of leukaemia, they hit on an idea to raise money for the local hospital: a WI calendar featuring them and their friends.
Calendar Girls is inspired by the true-life story of the Ryldale WI’s nude calendar, though names are changed, characters composited and incidents fictionalised. Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth’s screenplay turns this into a very English comedy of embarrassment – you can’t see this story working in countries with a less prudish history. It’s a story about “ordinary” people empowering themselves. Yes, there are definite echoes of other recent hits, such as a certain other low-budget Yorkshire comedy about male strippers that found universal appeal. It also doesn’t forget that comedy works better when counterpointed with pathos: Four Weddings would have been far less of a film without its funeral. But the dying John (played with an unshowy dignity by John Alderton) is a character in this film, and we don’t forget the private tragedy that’s at the heart of the comedy. The film even goes as far to suggest, though maybe it could have explored this further, that the whole calendar enterprise is little more than Annie’s grandstanding of her grief.
It’s a truism that there are very few good roles for women over forty, let alone fifty. Given the comic talent over that certain age on display here you’d expect them to make the most of this script, and they do. Mirren and Walters have the biggest roles, but Bassett, Imrie, Crosbie and Wilton do wonders with smaller roles. This is very much a distaff show, but Ciaran Hinds gives solid support as Chris’s husband and I’ve already mentioned Alderton’s contribution. Ashley Rowe’s camerawork makes the most of the greeny browns of Yorkshire, contrasted with the hard bright light of LA when the action switches to Hollywood. I don’t know what the division of labour was on the screenplay, but this is far superior to Tim Firth’s solo script for Blackball, released at the same time – much better dialogue and characterisation, not to mention a nice use of a recurring flower motif. There are flaws, certainly: some characters and incidents seem to be there simply to throw obstacles in the ladies’ path, and a subplot involving Chris’s son is much too perfunctory. The major problem is that the story really ends about half an hour before the film does, and you can all but hear the wheels spin to keep the whole thing moving. Towards the end, the ladies go to Hollywood, and there are a few too many familiar fish-out-of-water jokes. Nigel Cole’s direction is generally brisk and self-effacing, but he can’t overcome the lapse in pace.
However, all in all this is a film with a ready-made audience and it couldn’t really miss. And for much of the time, it doesn’t.