Eye For Film >> Movies >> Calendar Girls (2003) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
One of the most hyped English films of the year, telling the true story of Knapely Women's Institute members who posed nude for a calendar to raise money for leukaemia research, Calendar Girls is actually a surprisingly solid piece of film-making with much more to offer than sensationalism. With a terse, perceptive script, it ducks most of the expected cliches. In telling a story like this, it's difficult to avoid coming across as sanctimonious, hysterical or twee, but such moments are effectively undercut with dry humour. Following the full length of the story from the illness and death of one member's husband to the women's brief brush with international stardom on the Jay Leno show, the film also expands sideways to take in the experiences of the village menfolk and, in particularly poignant sequences, ringleader Chris' awkward teenage son. Though it also has a lot to say about bereavement and about self-esteem, this rapidly develops into a story about celebrity, with the women facing predictable strains but handling them in very personal, distinct ways.
Leading the cast as the glamorous Chris is Helen Mirren, who is really very good, though her presence does take the edge off the concept of middle aged women daring to bare their bodies, as she seems comfortable doing so in every other film. The brash energy of her performance is matched by a much more down-to-Earth turn from Julie Walters as the widowed Annie. Despite the subject matter, Walters' frequent ditziness is almost entirely absent, and instead she turns in something stronger and more sophisticated as her character learns to navigate the minefields of widowhood on her way to becoming an independent person. Her loss is explained in potent but never exploitative terms, doubtless a legacy of the involvement of some of the original Knapely women in this production. It adds to our sense of what the women's collective aging means, not just aesthetically, but also in terms of personal challenges. This helps to draw the film away from any politically correct statements about elder women's physical beauty. The women in the story know that they're imperfect, which adds to the potency of what they choose to do. The irony is that their eventual photographs are far more memorable and charming than those of traditional calendar models, since they are invested with so much personality, idiosyncrasy and sense of occasion.
All in all, there is far more going on in this story than the premise might have suggested. The crackling dialogue and strong sense of place means that it never seems to drag, even though shooting the pictures themselves doesn't happen until halfway through. Brief mention is made of women's liberation, and the final taboo-breaking is suffused with a distinct liberating energy in each instance. As a result of this internal change, several of the women are forced to re-evaluate their domestic lives and relationships, but this is handled in a mature and diverse manner. Each character is sharply drawn and enabled to develop as an individual. It's rare to see this done so well in ensemble film-making.
Calendar Girls is not an amazing film, but, despite the hype, it doesn't really try to be. It knows what it's capable of and handles that well. Few films manage to be so positive and peculiar and get away with both. However, the direction is uninspired, and from a technical point of view the pace is pedestrian. Not quite the eyeful it might have been.Reviewed on: 27 Jun 2007