Best to get this straight from the outset: Calendar Girls is not--and does not attempt to be--a female version of the wildly successful 1997 comedy The Full Monty. Whereas both of these British films began with the mildly outrageous premise that nudity sells--even if the 'nudes' turn out to be ordinary, not-so hunky working guys and/or middle-aged, not-so-sexy housewives--The Full Monty was a purely fictional concoction with nothing but fun on its mind. Calendar Girls, on the other hand, sticks pretty close to recent real events which involved real people, and it has a few life lessons it wants to impart.
Many will remember the ladies of the Women's Institute of a village in central Yorkshire, who, in 1999, decided they could raise a considerable sum of money for their local hospital by publishing a smashingly different annual calendar--one that would outsell offerings from previous years, which had always featured pictures of pastoral scenes or still lifes of fruits and vegetables. Two of the most rebellious members of the group proposed that the ladies themselves pose for the 2000 calendar--in the nude.
In the movie, these two are renamed Chris and Annie, and they are played, respectively, by Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, who are among England's finest actresses. But Calendar Girls certainly doesn't offer them their finest parts. The plot, such as it is, hinges on the death of Annie's husband John (John Alderton). Partly as a thank-you to the hospital where he was cared for, and partly to help Annie overcome her grief, Chris, the most rambunctious one, comes up with the idea of the nude calendar.
After the initial shock, other Women's Institute members go through an 'Oh, hell, why not?' moment and sign up, a photographer is found, and husbands are banished to the local pub as the middle-aged 'models,' emboldened by a bit of bubbly, drop their dressing gowns to pose in the buff behind discretely placed tea trays, flower arrangements and the like--in order to hide what Brits refer to as 'the naughty bits.'
The photo-shoot sequence is the film's high point and the wonderfully abandoned middle-aged actresses seem to be having a ripping good time while ripping off their clothes. It's all good clean fun. Too clean, actually, for in trying to avoid any sexual titillation, the filmmakers have avoided titillation of any kind. Maybe it happened somewhat that way in real life, but a movie needs more 'juice' than real life. And it needs more dramatic conflict.
The only true conflict in Calendar Girls arises between Chris and Annie after the media discovers the prim and proper nude models of Yorkshire, and the sales of their calendar--which were expected to be moderate, and concentrated locally--take off worldwide. Chris loves the spotlight and doesn't want to step out of it, while Annie knows that the visit to Hollywood (for an appearance on Jay Leno's show) and all the rest are but a sham. The glories of sudden fame cannot possibly replace her dead husband. While these are valid emotional reactions, they don't seem so here. The fictional characters and incidents are too obviously made up--especially the moment of truth between Chris and Annie as the two find themselves marooned on a backlit Hollywood street set.
Calendar Girls turns out to be one of those good ideas that do not easily make good movies. The filmmakers quite rightly did not want to offend or demean the saucy but basically nice clubwomen of Yorkshire, but as The Full Monty so expertly illustrated, a rewarding piece of entertainment must have a provocative buildup and a satisfying payoff. With its spirited cast and lighthearted subject matter, Calendar Girls is entertaining, to be sure. But it's not as much fun as it might have been.