In a typical outburst of British tastefulness, Helen Mirren’s appearance 32 years ago in Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah was heralded thus in the tabloid press: “Reveals Miss Helen Mirren full-frontal in a scene longer than the normal glimpse!”
Now, these many years later, we find Miss Mirren still taking it all off in her latest movie, Calendar Girls. This time, however, it can hardly be called full-frontal, and it’s somewhat less than even the “normal glimpse.” And, according to the necessities of the plot, she’s doing it for charity in this charming — if finally somewhat predictable — little British comedy from director Nigel Cole.
The screenplay by Tim Firth (British TV’s Cruise of the Gods) and Juliette Towhidi (A Secret Audience) is based on a real event where middle-aged women belonging to a Yorkshire chapter of the Women’s Institute decided to raise money for charity by posing for and producing a pinup calendar. To date, their efforts have raised nearly $1 million for a cancer-and-leukemia center at a Yorkshire hospital. That much is fact.
The screenplay, however, bows to the necessities of drama: A conflict has been added where the Powers That Be object to the plan, as has a somewhat tiresome subplot involving a minor falling-out between the project’s masterminds, Chris (Mirren) and Annie (Julie Walters). The initial conflict was undeniably necessary to flesh out the story. The second one … well, how many times can you have characters take on the “star” position, lose perspective and alienate their friends in the process before this cinematic contrivance simply falls to pieces? And how many times can audiences be expected not to realize that they’ve been there before — repeatedly?
In its favor, Calendar Girls manages to resolve this hoary device in a reasonably unexpected manner — and the film does even better by the twists it applies to the equally bewhiskered business of the neglected husband. If none of this exactly makes this material fresh, it at least makes it palatable by not playing precisely to expectations. Besides, the movie is overall so damned likable that it seems downright rude to complain.
The film’s plot has Chris — a very unwilling member of the Women’s Institute (she joined to please her mother) who’s known for plans that go awry — concluding that a nudie calendar would be more salable than the group’s usual “Views of Local Bridges.” Her idea is simply to raise enough money for a comfortable new sofa for the family room at the local cancer facility in honor of Annie’s late husband (John Alderton, who’s best known for the TV series Wodehouse Playhouse).
It’s hardly surprising that Chris is an unwilling member of this organization. Not only does her Women’s Institute chapter open — and apparently close — every meeting by making everyone sing “Jerusalem” (Warning: you will hear this so many times in the course of the movie that you’ll be stuck with it for days), but their idea of an interesting program is having someone speak on, well, broccoli. This tendency toward the mundane is brought into sharp relief when one speaker corrects the meeting’s moderator, telling her that not only will the talk be on rugs, but on all types of carpets. (“Thank goodness,” mutters Chris. “I thought for a minute it was going to be boring.”)
Moreover, Chris dislikes that she’s considered a bit of a screw-up, and she sees this plan to do something different as a golden opportunity to prove otherwise. Of course, things do not go smoothly: Not only does the head of the local chapter disapprove of the plan, but there’s also the problem of convincing Chris’ middle-aged-and-up friends to pose — and the further dilemma of finding a suitable photographer.
And it is in this area that the movie really scores — being at once realistically quirky and occasionally surprising (one woman, for instance, draws the line at “lower frontal nudity” as being something she’s saved for one man — and not her husband). The film also brilliantly conveys the sense of this small English community; however, it’s first and foremost a first-class vehicle for Helen Mirren — and, to a lesser degree, for Julie Walters. Both women are well-served by the script, but Mirren is positively luminous as the irrepressible Chris. It’s the comedic role of a lifetime for an actress who is best known for heavier fare.
Considering the tastefulness of the actual calendar (more cheesecake poses than visible nudity) and the PG-13 rating, Mirren may show less skin here than she did in Savage Messiah (or, for that matter, in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover). If anything, she shows more acting skill — and she was never any too shabby to begin with. This is an almost unbeatable performance that does more (and does it more realistically) for the sexiness and desirability of a no-longer-young woman than Diane Keaton managed in Something’s Gotta Give. In fact, the reality of Calendar Girls makes Something’s Gotta Give look even more like a cheat than it already did.
Minor quibbles about the plot to one side, my only real gripe with the film lies in director Cole and cinematographer Ashley Rowe’s decision to rely too much on natural light. While it does add to the film’s sense of reality, it’s also too often at the expense of the actors’ facial expressions. But all in all, Calendar Girls is more successful than not — and a film I’ll be revisiting more than once.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke