Calendar Girls directed by Nigel Cole, written by Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi, produced by Nick Barton, Steve Clark-Hall and Suzanne Mackie, with Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and John Alderton. 108 minutes. A Touchstone release. For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 84. Rating: NNN
here we have a bitter sweet comedy that starts off buoyed by a warm updraft of charm, then slowly sinks under the weight of its own moral baggage. It's based on the true story of the Rylstone Women's Institute, who sold nude calendars of themselves to raise money for the cancer wing of their local hospital. It focuses on two characters in particular, Annie Clarke (Julie Walters), whose husband's death from leukemia inspires the fundraiser, and Chris Harper (Helen Mirren), the feisty best friend who masterminds the scheme.
The film's first act, which establishes the relationships between Annie and Chris, their respective husbands and the Women's Institute, is by far the best. It opens with the two protagonists giggling helplessly at a series of Institute meetings, and the giddy warmth expands from there, suffusing a sequence of scenes establishing their daily lives in small-town Yorkshire.
Sight gags and witty dialogue come thick and fast, even as Annie's husband, John (an enormously likeable John Alderton), is diagnosed with cancer and starts chemo. It's all so skilfully handled that when John dies, the discharge of surreptitiously accumulated emotion is devastating.
The rest of the film, in which they shoot the calendar, become successful and go to Hollywood, pales in comparison. It's as though this were three short films linked by content but distinct in tone and quality. The photo shoot sequence could be from a light comedy à la The Full Monty, with a skilled ensemble cast.
The premise is gracefully handled, and there are funny moments, but the relaxed charm of the first act gets lost in a welter of subplots. When the women take off for Tinseltown, the film becomes a brittle and unconvincing satire about the dangers of materialism and the supremacy of family values. America acts on this film like a heat sink; and without its warmth, Calendar Girls loses direction and momentum and eventually wafts off back to Yorkshire, where it comes to rest, exhausted.