This year's British assault on the Yank funnybone is a spirited, hard-trying farce called Calendar Girls, plucked straight out of a 1999 headline and dolled up with all the heartwarming charm we've come to expect from recent films made by our former rulers. Essentially a chick flick for middle-aged women -- nothing wrong with that, is there, Oprah? -- it recounts the slightly naughty daring of a group of proper club women who sought to raise a few pounds for their local hospital by posing nude for the annual club calendar. This was not Hustler, mind you, nor even the soft-core tease of Maxim. Impediments as various as a washboard and a strategically placed vase of lilies obscured the more delicate parts of Miss January or Grandmum March, and the poses themselves were relentlessly demure, as befits solid citizens otherwise engaged in their vegetable gardens.
But what a sensation the Rylstone and District Women's Institute Calendar of 2000 provoked. In the wake of thousands of fan letters, British and European media covered the story endlessly, and in the U.S., widow Angela Baker and her friends appeared in People and the New York Times and on every TV show from 60 Minutes to 20/20. To date, the calendar has sold 300,000 copies and raised almost 600,000 pounds for leukemia charities. Leukemia took the life of Baker's husband, John, in 1999; his death was the inventive fund raisers' original cause.
It takes no imagination to see why the movie was made -- or how it got here. Irish charm and British eccentricity remain hot properties in America, and any film that promises to reproduce the warm buzz of The Secret of Roan Inish (10-year-old Irish girl finds her lost brother living with seals) or, better yet, the phenomenally successful The Full Monty (English steelworkers face unemployment by taking it all off) is bound to be grabbed up by a U.S. distributor -- in this case, Touchstone Pictures.
As with its predecessors, Calendar Girls' strong suits are gentle anarchism and general irreverence, apparently as abundant in the quaint villages of Yorkshire as stony green hills and meandering sheep. The playful perpetrators here, lightly fictionalized versions of the real things, are Chris Harper (Helen Mirren) and Annie Clark (Julie Walters), best friends and modest housewives who share an amused impatience with the club's monthly programs on broccoli cultivation and local rock formations. When Annie's beloved husband (John Alderton) dies of cancer, they resolve to do something a bit more exciting in his memory. Two or three bold steps later, and the racy calendar notion is afoot in the sleepy hamlet of Knapely -- with some hilarious complications to follow.
Let's give credit where it's due, because there are enough winning moments here to carry the day. A jittery photographer (Philip Glenister) doesn't quite know how to handle a dozen equally nervous middle-aged women about to disrobe in the kitchen. A mortified teenage boy glimpses his mum in the parlor. A tweedy old gent comments to his wife over breakfast: "Saw you nude today in the Telegraph, love. Kindly pass the bacon." But some things still don't cross the Atlantic very well. Director Nigel Cole and the two screenwriters, Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth, indulge the forced brand of Brit comedy that values precious quirkiness over character. In places, Calendar Girls suffers from a terrible case of the cutes, and an over-eagerness to please we didn't see in the less self-conscious Full Monty or, for that matter, in an earlier Cole-directed charmer called Saving Grace, in which Brenda Blethyn strikes just the right batty, Ealing-Comedy tone as a middle-class Cornish widow who staves off poverty by growing marijuana out in the greenhouse.
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That said, the new film is certainly likable, and it has a few things to say about the cost of fame (a tabloid reporter tricks an unsuspecting husband), the lure of celebrity (Mirren's Chris loses her head for a while, to the detriment of her family) and the old comic tension between puritanism and good clean fun. The principal players are expert, and the spirited supporting cast is just lovely, thanks -- not least Linda Bassett (who plays the suddenly revealed church organist), Geraldine James (the resistant women's club president) and Penelope Wilton (whose philandering husband leaves her in the midst of all the fuss). Near the end, we've also got an eye-opening trip to Hollywood, where the English country women who took their clothes off appear on The Tonight Show. In the end, however, it's all very pleasant and just a bit bland, like Yorkshire pudding.