Director Nigel Cole and scriptwriters Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth face a problem familiar to anyone who has tried to adapt “real life” for the screen. When the facts of a story have headlined international news and the protagonists enjoyed a well deserved 15 minutes of global fame, how might filmmakers create something original?
No more than 20 minutes into Calendar Girls, it’s clear that, if this question did occur to Cole, Towhidi and Firth, they ignored it. Instead, they have cobbled together a conventional collective biopic of the 12 over-40 Yorkshire women who decided to raise money for local cancer patients and their families by posing for, and selling, their own nude calendar. A roll call of Britain’s prime acting talent (the incomparable Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, Annette Crosbie, and Ciarán Hinds) renders this movie watchable but cannot lift it beyond the forgettable.
This wasted potential is particularly depressing, given that the world of the Calendar Girls touches on so many taboos in a society that idealizes anorexic youth as the sole route to love, happiness, and material success. The nakedness of the aging female body, the sexuality of menopausal (or post-menopausal) women, the still limited intellectual and social outlets for women’s energies outside metropolitan centers, and the complex compromises men and women negotiate to survive all splinter the smooth narrative of bored, convention-breaking middle-class women that emerged in the news coverage of the original calendar.
The movie, however, remains comfortably in cozy Masterpiece Theatr territory. Yorkshire is bucolic. The English are physically and emotionally repressed. The Women’s Institute enshrines a prissy 1950s’ domesticity, where making the best Victoria sponge (albeit not an easy task) is the pinnacle of ambition. Men can neither talk to each other nor understand women. It’s a world where one meets death with a witty quip and greets life with a stoical shrug, and the status quo is always, always restored. Over the decades, it’s been a nice little earner for British TV companies and risk-averse filmmakers. But it is also the artistic equivalent of Valium in the midst of global catastrophe.
As the end of the narrative is well known, nobody’s actions surprise the viewer. When Celia (Celia Imrie), exhausted wife of a dastardly carpet salesman, at first refuses to participate in the project, the audience knows she will eventually yield. The personal struggles between local firebrand Chris (Mirren) and Marie (Geraldine James), professional defender of Women’s Institute values, will inevitably end in Chris’ victory. And whatever the tensions among Chris, her husband, and adolescent son, they will survive intact as a family.
Still, on the occasions when the film does probe the interstices of its story, images of possibility flash dynamically on the screen. When, for instance, the women first meet their young hospital orderly/part-time amateur photographer, Lawrence (Phillip Glenister) he sits transfixed in almost catatonic terror as they explain their plans. He is clearly baffled by their hot and cold passions: he blossoms with their enthusiasm for his pre-shoot sketches of them baking or gardening in the nude, but shrivels as they plunge into the fine distinctions between artistic vision and residual prudery, in order to discuss the logistics of the actual photography (will they allow him to see them nude, for example, or will someone else push the shutter when he has set up the shots?).
Glenister’s compelling performance is physical, and all the more engaging for it. When he completes his shoot, he wanders into the local pub, wholly disoriented by his ordeal. He sees most of the husbands, mired in laconic misery, and stepping up to their table, downs a double brandy. Equally enlivening is Chris’ teenaged son (John-Paul MacLeod), the lonely butt of high school ridicule, as his mother’s behavior apparently grows more and more eccentric. The adolescent’s humiliation starts with her borrowing of the girlie calendar from the local garage, and accelerates rapidly when he and a friend inadvertently wander into the kitchen when she is demonstrating how to transform nakedness into artistic nudity to an avid coterie of fans.
The relationship between mother and son is by turns funny (while he’s drinking cheap red wine on a stereotypically bleak crag high above the town) and touching (when he’s arrested for smoking the contents of his mother’s herb cabinet, which two overeager officers mistake for marijuana). And it poignantly demonstrates the unconscious damage done by a parent’s public sexual avidity. Such moments temporarily ignite the movie, but they seem accidental, inserted to pad out the running time. Cole wastes his cast’s talents on the momentary pleasures of transient laughter provided by a moderately snappy script, and only when the main lines of the story run thin does he allow his actors to inhabit the human repercussions of the “calendaring” of an intimate, gossipy town.
Repeatedly in the film, Chris, Annie and their calendar collaborators claim that they’re proving that the Women’s Institute is not all “jam” (which represents the WI’s reputation for domestic perfection and limited intellectual horizons) and “Jerusalem” (the 19th century hymn which represents the sturdily English religious morality of the WI). But the spirit of the original “Jerusalem,” penned by that incendiary imaginary, William Blake, haunts this story. While the calendar girls’ real life triumphs prove that Blake’s radical spirit is burning still in “England’s green and pleasant land,” the film is driven by a mercenary conviction that only the anodyne sells. In this, it condescends not only to its audience but also, more importantly, to its courageous subjects.