Now, the idea of a film about a group of small-town middle-aged women getting naked might sound like something you'd get from under the counter in adult stores. It’s actually a rather remarkable true story and as it turns out is also the basis for one of the best comedies of the year.
Chris (Helen Mirren) and Annie (Julie Walters) are reluctant members of the Women’s Institute, consistently bored out of their minds by endless monthly meetings featuring speakers educating them in the fascinating topics of everything from carpet to broccoli. Aside from this, all is well in the small rural English town of Knapley. But when Annie’s husband John is stricken with terminal cancer, life is turned upside down.
Deciding to try and bring some good from the worst of situations, the women agree upon trying to raise funds for a replacement for the painfully uncomfortable relative’s room sofa of the local hospital where John received his treatment. Struck by a strange compulsion brought on by reading one of her teenage son’s porno mags, a calendar in a car workshop, and a speech written for the WI by John shortly before his death, Chris decides on a unique way to raise the funds; hijack the Women’s Institute’s annual calendar... and replace it’s usual array of “interesting buildings” with artistic nude photographs of members of Knapley WI.
Eventually roping in enough members for every month, the girls hire a super-repressed photography student to snap them. Fighting the prejudices associated with “women of a certain age” posing nude, the girls unwittingly begin a snowball of events which sees them becoming media celebrities overnight. In the process, they discover that very few of them have the perfect lives they seemed to.
Now maybe I’m biased coz I am after all British, but for me this movie was a joy to watch. It’s sad, sweet, uplifting, genuine and most importantly very funny without resorting to the kind of pratfalls and deliberate visual cues common to most modern comedy. The closest this comes to getting puerile is an argument on how to properly position some suspiciously boob-like cherry tarts intended to cover Celia’s (Celia Imrie) modesty. Both Helen Mirren and Julie Walters provide great lead performances and are well supported by a cast sporting the type of perfect comedic chemistry that’s rare to see. We even get some unexpected but not out of place cameos from Jay Leno and far more astonishing, metal band Anthrax.
Like the similarly charming and underrated humor of 1998’s Waking Ned, where Calendar Girls succeeds is in its scope. This is a simple story about normal people living small town life, trying to do something good and unexpectedly seeing their best intentions spiraling out of control. The characters look and feel real enough for you to really identify with. Real life can be funnier than a script-writer’s joke book and this film captures that. Even the cinematography captures that feeling of living and working in a small farmland community faultlessly.
Calendar Girls is the kind of film which makes you appreciate the humor divide between the Hollywood machine and the UK. Where in the States, gross-out humor and re-treaded slapstick like Scary Movie 3 is breaking box office records, Calendar Girls offers gentle heart-warming comedy of a completely different ilk. The result is a far more enjoyable and rewarding experience. Sadly, its release date only reinforces the chance that Calendar Girls will slip under the radar relatively unnoticed in the face of the Return Of The King über-machine.