The members of the Knapely Women’s Institute (WI) in North Yorkshire, England have a few choice words they use to describe their Thursday gatherings at a local lodge: “Enlightenment, fun, and friendship.” In Nigel Cole’s “Calendar Girls” you will find fun and friendship, but Cole’s exhibition of certain truths about life won’t be anything you haven’t seen before. Still, Cole succeeds in convincingly recreating small-town life in England, replete with strong characters and some original laughs.
Best friends Anne (Julie Walters) and Chris (Helen Mirren) make up the center of our group of quaint English women who every Thursday hear from guest speakers on such stimulating topics as growing broccoli and the history of knit rugs. Life is well enough for these women, but, as anywhere in the world, harsh realities can hit Knapely too: Anne’s husband John (played smoothly by veteran actor John Alderton) is soon diagnosed with leukemia. As they watch Anne’s husband die, Walters and Mirren shine brightly on screen, creating a friendship that feels real and believable — the somewhat crass but sharp Chris comforting the defeated Anne. But the death of Anne’s husband is not simply a great loss to Anne; it resonates in the community and acts as a harsh wake-up to the women of the WI: they are aging.
Soon Chris comes up with an idea to raise money for the hospital while simultaneously giving Anne something to keep her mind from grief: a nude calendar of the women of the Knapely WI. It takes some convincing to find 11 models among the WI (December being an ensemble picture), but Chris and Anne succeed, even if they do ruffle a few feathers in the WI administration in the process. While Cole does a fine job of making Anne and Chris come across as modern characters and still preserves the rustic flavor of the English countryside, the other ladies of the calendar clan are overstated in their old-fashioned-ness. Throughout the movie WI calendar girl Ruth (Penelope Wilton) seems like a character straight out of Victorian literature in her homeliness and weakness before her husband. Eventually though, like all of the calendar girls, Ruth breaks out of her self-made mold and becomes a stronger person.
Also, up to this point Cole has put together a pretty story of small-town beauty and struggle, with some magnificent portrayals of north English geography and culture. But from here the movie moves through a seemingly endless series of mini-conflicts and resolutions, climaxes and conclusions, which do not compare to the original conflict. Chris’ own son finds himself the object of insults at school as a result of his mother’s ‘naked’ fame. Not surprisingly he becomes angry and rebellious and even has a run in with the local authorities. But like many little trials in the movie, this one lacks any sort of ending.
As the calendars gain popularity, so too do the women of the Knapely WI achieve celebrity status when the mass media descends on the small town (who would have thought! but still cute). You know how the story goes from here — the influence of fame brings with it the usual woes and friendships are strained. Despite its “based-on-a-true-story” legitimization, if it weren’t for the poise of Walters and Mirren, the movie would have lost its audience at this point. Through his endless subplots that lack conclusion and run nowhere, Cole simply stretches for too much.
While the conflicts of “Calendar Girls” may not be very original or explored in a new way, its laughs may feel fresh and comfortable to an American audience as in many British comedies like “The Full Monty” or the BBC’s syndicated “Keeping Up Appearances.” The film survives in its small moments. At one point early in the film Cole finds rich material in dispelling the mythical stereotype of the English housewife when Chris’ ineptitude in the kitchen is put on full display at a county fair. And when Cole finally does come round to concluding “Calendar Girls,” (if not two or three times) he does bring us back to what convinced us in the first place: a group of aging women who, through friendship, bring a smile back to their lives.