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Calendar Girls (2003)

CRUMBLIES… 4 crumblies

Huzzah for women properly on their way to my age! They support each other, they love each other, they do the right thing by themselves, their friends and their loved ones. And – in this true story – they take an almighty risk with their self-esteem and the embarrassment we all share at our gathering decrepitude. Calendar Girls – I’m thinking you know what they did.

I watched this with Mad Maud, sat in the corridor while her room was cleaned. She’d had an appalling night of loneliness and nightmares, she said. She’d panicked at three in the morning and torn up anything solid in the room. The support boys were in there fixing and replacing and poor Maud needed a distraction. I chose Calendar Girls because Mrs Jack adored it back in the day.

Julie Walters (Annie) and Helen Mirren (Chris) do northern and normal. They are old buds, attending turgid Women’s Institute talks on broccoli and tea-towels, often shaking with laughter at the silliness of it all. They give lovely performances as real people, nervous and funny, and supporting each other through some dreadful times. For Annie is married to John Alderton (playing a John) and he falls ill. Gosh, but there’s a tenderness and delicacy in their scenes together: an affection that had me in tears. I’d like to think Mrs Jack felt that well supported at her end.

John dies. The friends resolve to do something for the local hospital and hit upon the idea of a calendar of them and their friends from the W.I. photographed naked (“not naked…nude”), but protected by jam-jars, buns and canny lighting.

Maude laughed her way through these scenes: touched by the comic fears of the cast, their battle with Geraldine James as Marie, leader of the local W.I., and the greater W.I. council from which Annie and Chris plead terrified permission.

And Maude was right to laugh. The film goes full-throttle on the charm from the start to the taking of the pictures. Britain’s best comedy actresses (lady actors; women; what am I allowed to say these days?) take over the screen:

  • Helen Mirren is nervy but determined. She gives off the risk-taker but also a touch of the credit-taker, enough to give the two leads a contrast.
  • Julie Walters is similarly terrified, but wrecked by her loss and visibly gaining strength from doing this for John.
  • Annette Crosbie is on One Foot in the Grave mode, passing glances and comments that made me rock with the joy of it.
  • Celia Imrie, Angela Curran, Rosalind March and all the other months draw laughs from moments I don’t want to spoil. They are, individually and as a group, an energetic delight.
  • Penelope Wilton as Ruth goes further, gaining Maude’s cheering approval as she deals with the reactions…and behaviour…of a bad husband.

In short, the cast is terrific.

Now the men sit quietly by as their partners get on with the risk – and are comically aware of Philip Glenister as Lawrence, the visibly tense photographer. There are moments of poor communication and rows in the relationships, but what makes this great viewing is that both women and men are as loving and supportive as in real life. Oh, for more films that show the sexes like this; Calendar Girls is in no way a recent film, but these things make it feel very fresh.

After some worries, the calendar of the nearly nude Knapley W.I. takes off. Money pours in and – as you might expect – things get tricksy between Annie and Chris. Maude continued laughing and cheering, but, for old Jack, this Storytelling 1.01 stuff interfered with the fun of the film. They fall out a bit, there is a rush to Hollywood, there is the loss of what made the film fun: Yorkshire, Yorkshire people, fear and growth of the flowers of Yorkshire. The film goes a bit Wizard of Oz, and not in a good way, shifting from the storm to an unwelcome Technicolor America of grasping and exploitation. Hmmm.

You should still watch Calendar Girls.

The quality of the talent carries the story to its ending and doesn’t let you lose sight of why Annie is doing this, how Chris is helping, and how this enterprise is helping so many of the participants. As I said earlier, the ageing of the body is a dreadful thing for its owner. Old Jack here had the light changed in his shower room because, you know, the glare on my saggy, old, puckered and greying flesh was physically depressing. The courage of the real women portrayed here is a thing of beauty. The middle-aged are doing something difficult and fantastic for one they loved.

Maud watched the film again when her room was done.

It’ll be on at Christmas. Betcha.

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