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Friday, December 19, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Smiles for 'Calendar' become contagious

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

TOUCHSTONE PICTURES
Annie (Julie Walters, left) and her friend Chris (Helen Mirren) plan a calendar in which they and their middle-age friends bare all in "Calendar Girls."
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"Don't leave me," quavers Annie (Julie Walters) to her husband, John (John Alderton), in the hallway of their Yorkshire home. It's an early scene in Nigel Cole's "Calendar Girls," and we don't yet know this middle-age couple, but something in Annie's voice tells us that it's not another woman she fears but a far more terrifying adversary. John, we quickly learn, has leukemia, and very early in the film he dies, leaving a heartbroken Annie behind.

But this isn't the story "Calendar Girls" is telling; rather, the film is about what happened after John's death, and it's inspired by a true story familiar to many. When John Baker died of leukemia in 1998, his widow, Angela, and her friends at the Rylstone and District Women's Institute — an organization through which middle-age Yorkshire women gathered to exchange recipes, hear enlightening lectures and sing "Jerusalem" — set out to raise some money for the local hospital that treated him. They hit on the idea of posing (discreetly) nude for their annual fund-raising calendar — which usually featured bucolic scenes of the countryside. Originally released in 1999, the calendar was a smashing success, ultimately raising more than $1 million for leukemia charities and making the women international celebrities.

Movie review


Showtimes and trailer

***
"Calendar Girls," with Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imbrie, Penelope Wilton. Directed by Nigel Cole, from a screenplay by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth. 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 for nudity, some language and drug-related material. Several theaters.

It's a heartwarmer of a story, and one that didn't need much embellishment — and, indeed, the first two-thirds of Cole's film, written by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth, is simple and charming; a female "Full Monty" with a tear-jerking twist. Walters and Alderton, in particular, create a touching portrait of a loving longtime marriage; a scene in which Annie sits in the threadbare hospital waiting room, her friend Chris (Helen Mirren) by her side, is quietly devastating.

And the gung-ho cheerfulness of the women as they embark on their project is infectious. Annie and Chris conscript a group of their Women's Institute colleagues — proper ladies in cardigans and pearls — for the calendar, despite some trepidation about the process. "We're not going to parade ourselves in a roomful of men," says one, resolutely. "This isn't France." And the portraits, like those in the original calendar, are saucy celebrations of grown-up women, comfortable in the stories that their lived-in bodies tell.

Unfortunately, sweet as this story is, it isn't quite enough to hang a movie on — and so we come to the last third of the film, in which the ladies become celebrities, go to Hollywood, start wearing smart black trouser suits and talking on cellphones, and have problems with their husbands. This part, full of manufactured drama that's all-too-quickly resolved, feels like padding, like a screenwriter's last-minute realization that the story needs more oomph. But it has the opposite effect, draining the effervescence out of the movie.

"Calendar Girls" is calendar-photo pretty, full of lovely scenes of the Yorkshire countryside. It's a gentle little movie that lets a group of older British actresses shine, even when the screenplay fails them. When the final title cards appear on screen, telling us how much money the real-life women made with their calendar, it's exhilarating — the story's so appealing you want to forgive the movie its flaws, and just smile.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com


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