These `Calendar Girls' shine in warm comedy


Published: Friday, January 2, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 11:58 p.m.

Calendar Girls'' is so much better than its bothersome trailer.

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"Calendar Girls," starring Helen Mirren, is based on the true story of 11 middle-aged women who posed naked for the annual calendar of the Women's Institute.

Touchstone

Facts

Calendar Girls

RATED: PG-13
STARS: Helen Mirren, Julie Waters
THEATER: Royal Park

Much more than the snickering sitcom its previews imply, this film has depth, warmth and heart, in addition to high comedy. Even more impressive is the caliber of its performances, starting with top-billed Helen Mirren and Julie Waters, who elevate the material to another, enriched realm, and continuing down to the smallest role among the film's fairly sizable ensemble.

The effervescent movie itself is the latest in a new breed of ``heartwarming'' British comedies - among them, Mark Herman's ``Brassed Off'' (1996), Peter Cattaneo's ``The Full Monty'' (1997), Kirk Jones' ``Waking Ned Divine'' (1998) and Nigel Cole's ``Saving Grace'' (2000).

These films boast a curious combination of soap-opera plotting, raucous comedy and middle-aged titillation and, for all their charm, look as if they came off an assembly line. ``Calendar Girls'' doesn't.

Also directed by Cole, it's based on a true story, but it probably got the studio greenlight because it was pitched at some brain-storming session as ``'The Full Monty,' only with women.''

The formula is in place: A group of middle-agers agree to do something dicey and otherwise questionable, but for the most honorable of reasons. Cole's similar ``Saving Grace'' was about a woman - played by Brenda Blethyn - supporting herself by growing marijuana in her small garden.

Like a vintage ``I Love Lucy'' episode, this basic formula is irresistible and highly watchable.

One could imagine the plots of both ``Saving Grace'' and ``Calendar Girls'' being done 50 years ago to accommodate the antics of Lucy and Ethel and the women in their bridge club. Only they would have been camped up and played strictly for laughs. But ``Calendar Girls'' never forgets the point behind the laughs.

Mirren and Walters play Chris Harper and Annie Clark, life-long best friends who live in the well-heeled fantasy village of Knapely, tucked amid the rolling hills of Yorkshire. Both are married to florists and they are also members of the Knapely arm of the Rhystone Women's Institute.

Annie no sooner talks her husband John into being the next speaker when he develops leukemia and dies. John's plan was to compare various flowers to the women of Knapely, noting that like the last stage of a flower, the women there are at their most glorious in middle age.

This gives Chris an idea. The Knapely WI is planning its annual calendar, and Chris suggests that they do a calendar featuring 12 of its members posed in the nude. The WI members are appalled. But Chris and Annie remain steadfast, always reminding detractors that the calendar is ``for John.''

Chris and Annie are modeled after Tricia Stewart and Angela Baker and the real women had no opposition when they proposed their daring calendar. But this is a movie. And so screenwriters Juliette Rowhidi and Tim Firth have invented a lot of roadblocks.

But despite these predictable bumps, the movie - like the calendar - moves along smoothly. The last third of the film, which has Chris and company traveling to Hollywood to promote the calendar, especially smacks of a ``Lucy'' episode. The film might have been better without it.

Mirren and Waters make a marvelous team, taking turns alternating the comedic and dramatic aspects of their roles, complementing each other and supporting one another. Mirren is dazzling in the showier role, while Waters is devastating as a suddenly abandoned wife.

Given the Hollywood penchant for relentless merchandising and tie-ins, I'm a bit surprised that Disney, which made the film, hasn't marketed the calendar produced in the movie. I'd like to have one.

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