Directed by Nigel Cole. UK. 2003.

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Dame Helen Mirren isn't averse to stripping off in the name of her art; in fact there are those who probably would argue she has made something of a career of it. So it should come as no great surprise that in her latest celluloid incarnation, Calendar Girls (the true story of the Women's Institute members who stripped off in the name of a charity calendar) her clothes come off. Mirren admitted in a recent interview that undressing for the camera was horrible, likening it to a form of torture. But however uncomfortable Mirren and her co-stars felt, it's worth it as Calendar Girls is set to have audiences laughing and crying both sides of the Atlantic as it join the alumni of home grown British hits. 

When Annie's (Julie Walters) husband John (John Alderton) succumbs to leukaemia, she and her friends at the WI decide to put out a calendar to raise some money for the hospital where he was treated. Given that the WI's previous calendar (views of local churches) raised the princely sum of £75.60, the women face an uphill battle. That is, until Chris (Helen Mirren) suggests that they should pose naked for the calendar. Given that this idea comes from the woman who won a prestigious WI prize for a cake she bought from Marks & Spencer, the rest of the women are more than a little sceptical of what looks to be another of Chris' hair brained schemes. But when Annie announces the idea is a perfect memorial to John, one by one the women are coaxed into baring their all, one exclaiming 'I'm 55 years old. If I'm not going to get 'em out now, when am I?' 

Back in 1999, the women of the Rylestone and District WI crossed their fingers and hoped they'd sell about 3000 copies of their calendar. When the media showed an interest, the story of the calendar girls quickly became hot news. As people took the story to their hearts, the women were catapulted to instant celebrity, and in the process sent sales of the calendar soaring to the point where they outsold Britney Spears and Sports Illustrated Swimwear's efforts, and it wasn't too long before Hollywood and an invitation to appear on the Jay Leno show beckoned, not to mention the scores of copycat calendars that followed (fishermen, firemen, and staff at a BBC radio station to name but a few).

The calendar takes the women on a journey from anonymity to celebrity, Yorkshire to Hollywood, but the journey each of the women makes individually far outweighs the air miles that they cover on their trip stateside.

The first of the women, Celia (Celia Imrie) to disrobe for the calendar finds the prospect of baring all utterly paralysing, she can't bring herself to even reveal her body to her closest friends. Having set up the shot then left the room, photographer Lawrence (Philip Glenister) haplessly shouts instructions from behind a closed door as the women give words of encouragement as they take the picture themselves. But it's no use, poor Celia has performance anxiety and while having managed to drop her robe still looks like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Eventually she concedes, and Lawrence is allowed back in the room, and we witness one of the films most wonderful moments. From behind the camera, Lawrence coaxes Celia as she posed strategically behind a plate of cherry buns; you look beautiful he tells her. Suddenly Celia relaxes, smiling as she lets go of her inhibitions, and click, the shot is captured, perfect. On the other hand for prim and proper Ruth (Penelope Wilton), it takes several whiskeys before she's brave enough to de-clothe. Afterwards, spurred on by her newfound confidence she faces up to the problems in her marriage, and confronts her adulterous husband. 

Mirren and Walters honest and touching portrayal of the lifelong friendship between Chris and Annie provides the films backbone. As the media hype around the calendar intensifies, the foundation of the women's friendship is put under threat. Chris knocks her whole life out of kilter when she falls victim, much to Annie's disdain, to the seductive charms of fame, and doesn't notice that her teenage son Jem is going slowly off the rails until he is arrested (abet for possession of what turns out to be oregano, which provides one of the films most humorous moments). She neglects her husband (who in turn has fallen victim to an exposé by an undercover tabloid journalist), and follows the rest of the women on a promotional trip to Los Angeles rather than stay behind and face her family problems. Filming a washing powder commercial in a Hollywood back lot, it takes a stark reminder from Annie about why they decided to make the calendar in the first place to bring Chris back down to earth. 

One of the films masterstrokes is the way it deals with Annie's grief. The combination of excellent writing and of course the sheer breadth of Walters acting ability avoids any over-sentimentality or exploitation of Annie's tears. She doesn't cry or weep as she finds her way through the maze of grief that the untimely death of her husband John- played brilliantly by Alderton- has thrust her into, instead the heartache and sadness is there in her eyes, in the inflection of her voice, subtle but unmissable. 

In lesser hands Calendar Girls could have so easily become an over-glamorised, sanitised and lukewarm version of what is a very special story. But with a script that provides a perfect balance of poignancy and humour, together with a stellar cast, under the sensitive direction of Nigel Cole (Saving Grace), Calendar Girls is a rare gem that captures the heart and soul of these ordinary women who took a risk and in the process achieved something truly extraordinary.

Emma Dixon
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