" Get all the good you can outta 17 ‘cuz it sure wears out in one helluva hurry. "
— Paul Newman, Hud

MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Calendar Girls is the true story of a group of Yorkshire women who launch a daring project to raise money for a cause, revealing their inner and outer beauty in the process.

Twelve Views

The Calendar Girls give it their all
The Calendar Girls give it their all

Calendar Girls opens with Chris (Helen Mirren) and Annie (Julie Walters) in the back rows of their village’s monthly Women’s Institute meetings, giggling like junior high girls to endure the tedious guest lecturers on rugs, the history of the Milk Marketing Board, and broccoli, among other scintillating topics.

The film quickly reveals some of the difficulties under the surface of the idyllic village lives: Chris discovers her son’s “Big Bazookas” magazine under his bed and chides her husband for nagging; Chris comforts Annie when Annie’s husband contracts leukemia; and homely Ruth can barely get a peck on the cheek from her businessman husband.

As the most reluctant W.I. member (“I hate plum jam!”), Chris comes up with the oddball ideas. The vodka tasting doesn’t go over well with their uptight W.I. leader, and her friends in-the-know are shocked when she wins the W.I. regional competition with a purchased cake.

Before Annie’s gardener husband John dies of leukemia, he prepares a moving lecture for the W.I. about flowers and life that encapsulates the theme of the film: “The flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire: Every stage of their growth is more beautiful than the last. But the last phase is always the most glorious.” After John’s death, his ideas inspire Chris to raise money by creating a nude calendar – an alternative to the usual twelve views of bridges or churches the W.I. puts out yearly – to pay for a decent sofa for the waiting room at the hospital where John was treated.

But Is it Art?

When Chris and Annie broach the calendar idea with their friends, they insist that everyone in it will be “nude,” not “naked.” One asks about the difference between art and pornography. “An artist,” says Annie. Their friends’ resistance to appearing in the calendar falls quickly and humorously. One woman would rather display more of her self-professed “tremendous” breasts than proposed, another simply says, “No front bottoms. Just as long as it’s no front bottoms,” and yet another says, “I’m 55 years old, so if I’m not going to get ’em out now, when am I?” The story provides a tender illustration of the many ways aging women perceive themselves.

In the scenes that show the photo shoot, the actresses really do appear in their birthday suits, saggy, stretchmarked, and all. True-to-life, the actresses portraying the women seem nervous while appearing to enjoy the camaraderie.

Fame and the Middle-Aged Woman

The calendar turns into such a media sensation that Hollywood comes knocking. Some of the women use the trip as an escape from the problems that have plagued them at home. The sudden introduction of conflicts and resolutions makes many of the plots and subplots seem hastily employed to advance the story. Conflicts between Chris and Annie and Chris and her family members are resolved in brief conversations just before the ending.

At times, Calendar Girls has the feel of two movies stitched together. The first half tells the story of the death of Annie’s husband and the challenge of making the fundraising calendar. The second half, which begins with the women’s star turn in Hollywood, addresses the effects of fame on the women (which, to the film’s credit, aren’t all negative).

Despite a few flaws, this is a moving, tenderhearted, and funny film. I got teary when I read the closing caption that revealed the staggering amount of money raised by the calendar to date; the W.I. chapter’s daring effort not only financed the new couch but also a new leukemia wing at the hospital.

Picture and Sound

The DVD picture (in the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio) shows the gorgeous Yorkshire country village setting and the women in all their glory. The calendar itself looks great, too; it is as revealing as the original that inspired the film (to compare them, watch the DVD documentary featurette, “The Naked Truth”).

Both the sound and the dialogue are problematic at times, however, even for an anglophile like me. When Chris says, “This is about putting up a united front against Highgyll,” she sounds like she’s saying “our guild” instead of a town name. Often it wasn’t the Yorkshire accents that threw me. I found myself bewildered when the dying John admonishes his wife: “Don’t you go buying any benches….You put a bench out here, it’ll have ‘Leeds’ Stuffed Arsenal’ on it before you get back to the car.” Several times I had to turn on the DVD’s captions to understand the words, but that didn’t necessarily help me understand the dialogue.

DVD Extras

The DVD contains two featurettes. “The Naked Truth” is a documentary about the women of Kettlewell, where there really is a Women’s Institute that has encouraged women to learn skills and crafts for many years. The documentary makes it movingly and humorously clear that Calendar Girls hewed closely to the true story. Another documentary, “Creating the Calendar,” portrays the actors’ and filmmakers’ reactions to doing the nude scenes and making the calendar shown in the film.

Of the four deleted scenes included on the DVD, the best is “In the Lounge (with Anthrax).” I wish the filmmakers could have done more with the scenes that feature the American rockers and the middle-aged Englishwomen; they are genuinely funny and end all too quickly.