But what a sensation the 2000 Rylstone and District Women's Institute calendar provoked. British and European media covered the story endlessly, and in the United States, widow Angela Baker and her friends appeared in People and The New York Times and on every TV show from 60 Minutes to 20/20. The calendar sold 300,000 copies and raised more than half a million pounds for leukemia charities. Leukemia took the life of Baker's husband, John, in 1999; his death was the inventive fund-raisers' original cause.
As with the phenomenally successful The Full Monty (English steelworkers take it all off), Calendar Girls' strong suits are gentle anarchism and general irreverence, apparently as abundant as stony green hills and meandering sheep in the quaint villages of Yorkshire. The lightly fictionalized versions of the real women are Chris Harper (Helen Mirren) and Annie Clark (Julie Walters), best friends and modest housewives who share an amused impatience with the club's monthly programs on broccoli cultivation and local rock formations. When Annie's beloved husband (John Alderton) dies of cancer, they resolve to do something a bit more exciting in his memory. Two or three bold steps later, the racy calendar notion is afoot -- with hilarious complications to follow.
There are enough winning moments here to carry the day. A jittery photographer (Philip Glenister) doesn't quite know how to handle a dozen equally nervous middle-aged women about to disrobe in the kitchen. A mortified teenage boy glimpses his mum in the parlor. A tweedy old gent comments to his wife over breakfast, "Saw you nude today in the Telegraph, love. Kindly pass the bacon." But some things still don't cross the Atlantic very well. Director Nigel Cole and screenwriters Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth indulge the forced brand of Brit comedy that values precious quirkiness over character. In places, Calendar Girls suffers from a case of the cutes and an over-eagerness to please that we didn't see in the less self-conscious Full Monty or in Cole's charming Saving Grace.
But the likable Calendar Girls has a few things to say about the cost of fame (a tabloid reporter tricks an unsuspecting husband), the lure of celebrity (Mirren's Chris loses her head for a while) and the old comic tension between puritanism and good clean fun. The principal players are expert, and the supporting cast is just lovely. In the end, it's all very pleasant and just a bit bland, like Yorkshire pudding.