Calendar Girls is a rather conventional comedy, but it works with honor and spirit, and it’s another movie — like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood — at which the rare sound of middle-aged female laughter can be heard in the theater. The movie is about English women in their fifties or beyond, contemplating the heretofore-absurd notion of displaying their flesh for money. It’s for a good cause: raising funds to buy a new couch for the relatives’ room at a local hospital. The cause is close to home for Annie (Julie Walters), whose amiable, loving husband John (John Alderton) has recently died of leukemia. Annie’s best friend Chris (Helen Mirren) hits upon the idea of doing a nudie calendar, “for John,” sponsored by their local Women’s Institute chapter.
This is all based in fact: Tricia Stewart did devise the idea, inspired by her friend Angela Baker’s bereavement. The actual calendar, which features Tricia, Angela, and several other members of the Women’s Institute, can be viewed in part at the movie’s official website. Director Nigel Cole seems to be drawn to stories about sensible English ladies who throw propriety to the wind; his previous feature was Saving Grace, in which Brenda Blethyn — nobody’s idea of a drug dealer — parlayed her greenhouse expertise into growing pot for profit. Drugs, nudity — maybe Cole’s next comedy will concern a group of graying English women who form a rock band.
At its core, Calendar Girls is the story of the friendship between Chris and Annie. The rapport between Helen Mirren and Julie Walters is on wheels right from the start, when we see them suppressing giggles during a deadly dull WI meeting (“We’ve learned quite a lot about broccoli today, haven’t we?” chirps the hapless branch president). Chris’s enthusiasm for the calendar project gets everyone else fired up, sometimes against their better judgment. They hire a hospital orderly who does photography on the side, and soon enough the calendar is printed up and disappearing from stores. Suddenly the British press is at the ladies’ doors, and Hollywood beckons them for The Tonight Show and a TV commercial.
It’s here that Calendar Girls deepens and complicates. Wrapped up in the heady thrill of success, Chris neglects her husband (the always dependable Ciarán Hinds) and teenage son (John-Paul Macleod); she pushes the rest of the women to Hollywood, where they recline in luxury but aren’t aware of the nature of the commercial they’re expected to do. The media is sending the wrong message — everyone focuses on the nudity (and the rather sexist notion that the calendar is an amusing novelty — the novelty being that women past fifty could have something worth showing off) and not on the original altruistic impulse behind it. For a few scenes, and without diminishing our sympathy for her aims, Chris becomes monomaniacal in her quest to move more copies of the calendar; her goal is now to raise enough to cure cancer. This puts off Annie, who has seen enough exposure and, as she puts it, would trade all the calendar proceeds for one more hour with John. Narrative turns like this keep Calendar Girls from being a whitewashed, subject-approved biopic that ignores inconvenient emotions. They don’t keep the movie from being fast and engaging, especially with seasoned pros Mirren and Walters up front. Sometimes a news item fails to translate into a movie because, even though the events might have happened, the moviemakers can’t convince us that the same events could plausibly occur in the semi-factual world they’ve created. But we understand why these ladies became calendar girls, and we believe it.