January 16, 2004 -- “Calendar Girls” is a film based on a true story about a group of normally reserved rural British women in their later years who bare all for a hospital fund-raising calendar. The media frenzy over the story led to huge sales of the calendar and appearances on television shows in the United States. The film is an odd mixture of robust comedy and tear-jerking sentimentality. It works great as a comedy, but not so great as a drama.
Hellen Mirren (“Gosford Park”) stars as Chris, co-owner of a flower shop in the town of Knapley in Yorkshire, who hits on the idea of the calendar after the death of her best friend's husband, John (played by John Alderton of “Upstairs, Downstairs” TV series), by cancer. After she and John's wife, Annie (Julie Walters of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”) spend many hours sitting on the very uncomfortable sofa in the visitor's room at the hospital, they get the idea to donate a comfortable new sofa to the hospital. The women's club they belong to doesn't have the money to buy a good sofa, so they decide to raise the money for the sofa by selling calendars.
There is opposition to the idea by the president of the club, called the Knapely Women's Institute, who feels it is improper for the ladies of the club to pose in the nude (this part of the story is fictional). Chris, Annie and a group of other women decide to go ahead with the project anyway, drawing inspiration from an essay John had written. He wrote that the flowers, like the women of Knapely, reach the peak of their beauty in the last stages of their development. The first job is to find a photographer. The applicants are inappropiate in funny ways for one reason or another. When they do find a photographer, it is also pretty funny how the women plan to take the photos of the nude women without the photographer actually being in the same room.
Once the calendar hits the streets, the hounds of the press are all over it. The media circus sets up in Knapely and every one of the calendar girls, their families and friends are hounded. This puts a strain on some marriages. Ruth's (Penelope Wilton of “Iris”) husband leaves her because of the calendar. This appears to be a serious side of the story, but later turns out to be funny as well (this part of the story is entirely fictional).
Because of all this publicity, sales of the calendar skyrocket and handling the calendar project becomes a full-time job. Chris' husband, Rod (Ciarán Hinds of “The Sum of All Fears”), gets stuck running the flower shop by himself and their son is having trouble adjusting to his mother's fame as “Mrs. January.” There is some friction between Chris and Annie over the fact that the calendar is getting more commercial, and less like the charity project it was originally supposed to be. She objects to the commercial endorsements that Chris lines up for the calendar.
The story skips along as lightly as a butterfly during the comedy scenes, but gets bogged down too much by the melodrama, which seems overblown. The movie has a mix of about 50 percent comedy, 50 percent drama. A mix of 75 percent comedy would have worked better. The movie would have gone smoother. A little tragedy and backbitting goes a long way. One scene, particularly, put the brakes on the movie. The light mood is shattered when Annie starts reading letters from people talking about loved ones they have lost to cancer. I get the idea. There is a serious side to the movie, but too much emphasis is put on the problems caused by the calendar, and not enough about the good that came out of the project. The positive side of the calender fund is relegated to a couple of paragraphs of text at the end of the film. Those paragraphs are a lot more interesting than the hyped feud between Chris and Annie, for instance. Some of the scenes, like the Tai Chi classes, look staged because of their odd, remote, scenic locations.
The film was shot in Kettlewell (Knapley does not exist) in the Yorkshire Dales. The real story took place in Rylstone, in northern Yorkshire. Cinematographer Ashley Rowe (“Chasing Liberty”) used stockings stretched over the camera lens to soften most scenes shot in England. Rowe did a nice job shooting the film. The English countryside scenes looked idyllic. The acting is very good in the film. The British seem to have an abundance of acting talent and it is on display in this film. This is another one of those films, like “Something's Gotta Give” which celebrates older women. This film rates a B.
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