Calendar Girls

Calendar Girls (12A)

After Lara Croft, the X-Men, the Terminator and sundry other returning Hollywood heroes and heroines this summer the biggest hit of 2003 could well turn out to be this unassuming little number.

Starring a bunch of middle-aged women and their wobbly bits heading in the direction of the lowest point of the compass, Calendar Girls is set to be the year’s most popular release as audiences clamour for real stories, real emotions and, most importantly, real people.

The film is a warts and all portrait of the events that led a group of middle-aged, middle class, Middle England ladies to drop everything in the name of charity when one of their husbands succumbs to leukaemia.

The fact that they are members of the genteel Women’s’ Institute, based in a sleepy Yorkshire village, doesn’t deter them. Their fund-raising idea, however, is a shocker: they will pose nude for a tasteful calendar, their modesty hidden by strategically placed household items while they demonstrate traditional WI skills such as flower arranging.

Naturally the plan goes against the grain of everything the WI traditionally stands for. This is an organisation devoted to the baking of cakes, not parading naked. Its members warble ‘Jerusalem’ at the beginning of each meeting. They sit and listen while guest speakers drone on about pet subjects: broccoli is one such riveting topic.

Determined to pursue their plan, ringleaders and best friends Chris and Annie (Helen Mirren and Julie Walters in a barely disguised version of real-life pals Tricia Stewart and Ros Fawcett, whose late husband John was the inspiration for the charity calendar) ignore the wishes of their local chairman (Geraldine James) and make a plea at the WI’s national conference. Given the go-ahead, they plough ahead.

None of them realise that they have taken the first step on what will become a global phenomenon.

Calendar Girls, directed with style and humour by Nigel (Saving Grace) Cole, positively streams with emotion. From early scenes involving the stricken John (John Alderton in a moving cameo) through to Walters and her pals coming to terms with her loss, this is a tremendously human and involving story of real people.

Naturally Cole and screenwriter Tim Firth have fiddled with the details to present as involving a film as possible, but the route from real life to cinema screen has been trod with respect and affection, giving this movie one of the best pedigree of all: honesty.

The picture’s secret weapon is its humour. Self-deprecating, occasionally bordering on saucy (“I am 55 years old, so if I’m not gonna get ‘em out now, when am I?” asks one forthright Yorkshire lass) and blunt throughout, it underlines the journey taken by these remarkable women as they ride a tidal wave of publicity from Yorkshire to Hollywood.

Scattered throughout are telling scenes of normal life. A husband, conned by a tabloid journalist, finds his bedroom secrets splashed across the Sunday papers. A son, convinced his mother is a lesbian, stumbles into the room as she disrobes before her friends. The photographer, barred from the room as the women  – among them Celia Imrie, Annette Crosbie and Penelope Wilton, all beautiful and classy ladies – psyche themselves up to undress, sits outside like a condemned man. And the collected husbands, pints in hands, sit in the local pub while the photographs are taken.

Calendar Girls boasts some fine acting from some of our very best actors. While pride of place goes to Mirren and Walters, the likes of Imrie, Wilton and Linda Bassett shine as ordinary women who discover something deep inside themselves that makes them extraordinary.

That is only to be applauded. Moreover, it may well act as a clarion call to thousands of other women, all ‘of a certain age’, to recognise their own gifts and accept that, after all, life really can begin at 50, 55, 60, 65…

Star rating: *****

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