Lifelong friends Chris (Helen Mirren) and Annie (Julie Walters) aren't exactly the Women's Institute kind of women. They sit in the back row at the British women's group's weekly meetings giggling when they should be singing enter store-bought cakes in bakeoffs and don't know jam from jelly. Chris is the rebellious type; Annie's quiet but strong a trait that serves her well when her husband John (John Alderton) dies of cancer in a small Yorkshire hospital. Although she's grieving Annie wants to make life more comfortable for the families of other dying patients so she and Chris come up with a scheme to raise money for a new sofa for the relatives' room in the hospital: they'll make a WI calendar featuring members performing typical WI tasks--baking knitting playing piano--only the women in it all of a certain age will be--gasp!--naked. Scratch that--nude. This is art after all. Whatever you call it when the calendar arrives in print it creates such a stir that the Chris Annie and their fellow models are on TV and in the papers all over England which means Hollywood isn't far behind. Their celebrity grows and so does their confidence but as they deal with their newfound fame their friendship is put to the test.
In Calendar Girls The Full Monty meets Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood creating one of cinema's little ironies: This film although based on a true story feels derivative and the characters while well acted aren't all that compelling. Perhaps it's because they ring just the tiniest bit false despite being played by superb actresses Mirren (Gosford Park) and Walters (Billy Elliot) both of whom are cast largely against type in this movie. Mirren shows her spunky side as the engaging ringleader Chris while Walters tones down her usual bold style to play the grieving widow. The change may bode well for them come the Academy Award nominations but truth be told both have given far more complex performances with far better material in other films. The supporting cast which includes Linda Bassett Annette Crosbie Celia Imrie and Penelope Wilton as the other calendar girls lends interesting insight into the age/sexuality issues of the film as each struggles with her decision to pose; it's obvious a lot of back-story creation went along with what we actually see on screen. Ciaran Hinds charms as Chris' supportive husband while Alderton generates sympathy without sappiness as Annie's ailing spouse.
Compared to most Hollywood releases Calendar Girls is a well-intentioned film and clearly director Nigel Cole (Saving Grace) wanted to tell a moving true story in an amusing unsentimental way. At any other time of year his work would stand out for having done just that but releasing it in a month full of Oscar contenders begs comparisons and Calendar Girls doesn't quite measure up. Granted the scenery is beautiful; the Yorkshire Dales are among the most beautiful places on Earth. Yes the sentiment is touching and the ideology espoused (older women are beautiful and worthy of ogling) timely and worthy. But at the end of the day this is not the next Billy Elliot Full Monty or English Patient--much as it's obviously trying to be.