"Calendar Girls," the real-life story of seemingly staid, mature Yorkshire women who posed for a nudie calendar, delivers very likable, if sometimes dramatically wobbly, results. Pic's a splendid showcase for some of Blighty's best 50-year-old-plus femme talent, led by Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, with good-looking direction by Nigel Cole.

“Calendar Girls,” the real-life story of seemingly staid, mature Yorkshire women who posed for a nudie calendar, delivers very likable, if sometimes dramatically wobbly, results. Pic’s a splendid showcase for some of Blighty’s best 50-year-old-plus femme talent, led by Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, with good-looking widescreen direction by Nigel Cole (“Saving Grace”). Following its world preem at the Locarno fest Aug. 9, pic rolls out a month later across the U.K., where heavy promo looks to reap succulent, though maybe not humongous, rewards. Stateside, film goes out through Touchstone Dec. 19, as counter-programming to bigger end-of-year fare. In contrast to its advance publicity — and strong word-of-mouth following a Cannes market screening — pic is not a sassy, turbo-charged celebration of small-town rebels and ageless, inner beauty. Though the film is never dull, and playing by the cast is spirited, it’s actually a surprisingly gentle movie, with no big “Full Monty”-like finale to send auds buzzing into the street. The humor has a typically British, offhanded flavor, and the essentially simple story plays more as a multi-character rondo on a single idea. For every laugh-out-loud moment, or eccentric touch, there are equal moments of reflection and pause.

Script by former journo Juliette Towhidi and TV scripter Tim Firth — both making their feature film debut — rapidly sketches, in slightly exaggerated style, a dull Women’s Institute branch in the fictional burg of Knapely in Yorkshire, northeast England. Weekly meetings, held in a village hall, and presided over by branch head Marie (Geraldine James), feature talks on such riveting subjects as rugs, tubular legwear and the history of broccoli.

Among the regulars are close friends Chris Harper (Mirren) and Annie Clark (Walters), both of whom feel the institute needs a shakeup. Chris, known for her often wacky ideas, doesn’t bat an eyelid when she finds a girlie mag in her teenage son’s bedroom. Annie is calmer and more methodical.

Casting Mirren and Walters against type works surprisingly well, with the former gleefully sinking her teeth into the part of the anything-goes Chris. Walters, more often in showy roles, is much more restrained here, and brings some emotional undertow to the loving relationship between Annie and John (John Alderton), who, rather abruptly, succumbs to leukemia. When later discussion at the WI turns to the next year’s calendar, Chris has the idea (inspired by a sexy calendar in an auto mechanic’s workshop) of a series of nude portraits, with the proceeds going to the local hospital that cared for Annie’s husband.

All Chris has to do is find a photographer and convince some of the other women to take part, with each posing nude in a traditional WI activity (flower arranging, cake making, etc.) for each month of the year. After finally settling on a young amateur photog, Lawrence (Philip Glenister), the women clandestinely gather for a lengthy but liberating photo session.

Despite an uncertain start in establishing a consistent comic tone, pic builds into an engaging, light character comedy, played somewhere between the Ealing tradition and contempo regional comedy. The challenge from the halfway point is to turn these mild English stereotypes into more substantial characters an audience will empathize with; it’s a challenge only half met by scripters Towhidi and Firth.

In the real-life story, which took place some four years ago, the women actually faced little opposition to their idea, got heaps of publicity on both sides of the pond, and have so far made more than £500,000 ($750,000) for a new leukemia unit at the local hospital. Faced with developing the characters once the nut of the pic — producing the calendar — is done, Towhidi and Firth invent a roadblock to the calendar being produced (climaxing in a speech by Chris to a WI national congress in London), turn their trip to Hollywood into a reverie on the corrupting influence of fame on friendship (specifically, Chris and Annie’s), and try to flesh out some of the other characters with small subplots. (Only Chris and Annie are modeled on real-life people — Tricia Stewart and Angela Baker.)

Some of this works well: Chris’ speech is beautifully played by Mirren with a mixture of forthrightness and sincerity. Some doesn’t: The women’s wide-eyed trip to Hollywood would sit better in a movie set during the ’60s, and several of the other characters, such as Annette Crosbie’s elderly Jessie, never go much beyond caricature. The lack of any overall dramatic arc or a slap-bang finale — is the script’s main weakness, and the flimsy structure simply can’t support some of the weightier issues the scripters try to bolt on in the second half.

Ensemble playing is smooth and natural, with Celia Imrie, as the golf-playing, upper-class Celia, and Penelope Wilton as the quiet, cuckolded Ruth, making the best impression outside Mirren and Walters. Among the men, Alderton hardly gets a chance to build a character before he disappears, though Ciaran Hinds makes more of his smallish role as Chris’ husband, Rod, especially in the latter stages. Nudity is tastefully handled — as it is in the real-life calendar — with almost nothing naughty on actual display; the beautifully rendered photos in the film-version calendar were snapped by professional stills photog Jaap Buitendijk.

Technically, helmer Cole has put together an attractive package, with Ashley Rowe’s widescreen lensing of the Yorkshire Dales (with the village of Kettlewell mostly repping the fictional Knapely) nicely situating the characters in their landscape, and Patrick Doyle’s buoyant music jogging things along in montage sequences. P.d. Martin Childs’ sets at Shepperton Studios blend seamlessly with exteriors.

Calendar Girls

U.K.

Production

A Buena Vista Intl. (in U.K.)/Touchstone Pictures (in U.S.) release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Harbour Pictures production for Buena Vista Intl. (U.K.). Produced by Nick Barton, Suzanne Mackie. Co-producer, Steve Clark-Hall. Directed by Nigel Cole. Screenplay, Juliette Towhidi, Tim Firth.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Ashley Rowe; editor, Michael Parker; music, Patrick Doyle; music supervisor, Liz Gallacher; production designer, Martin Childs; art director, Mark Raggett; costume designer, Frances Tempest; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS Digital), Tim Fraser, Tim Cavagin, Steve Single; assistant director, Deborah Saban; casting, Gail Stevens (U.K.), Jackie Burch (U.S.). Reviewed at CFC preview theater, London, July 29, 2003. (In Locarno Film Festival -- Piazza Grande.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Chris Harper - Helen Mirren Annie Clark - Julie Walters John Clark - John Alderton Cora - Linda Bassett Jessie - Annette Crosbie Lawrence - Philip Glenister Rod - Ciaran Hinds Celia - Celia Imrie Marie - Geraldine James Ruth - Penelope Wilton Eddie - George Costigan Richard - Graham Crowden Frank - John Fortune
With: Georgie Glen, Angela Curran, Rosalind March, John-Paul McLeod, Marc Pickering, John Sharian, Jay Leno.
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