As I write these words, the stage version of Calendar Girls is being performed by hundreds of theatre groups up and down the country. The release of the rights to amateur groups over an 18-month period has already raised enormous amounts of money for charities seeking to provide support for those affected by cancer, and fund research into beating it. With the play's popularity at an all-time high, now is as good a time as any to revisit the film on which it was based. Ten years on, Nigel Cole's retelling of an incredible true story still holds up pretty well, being slight and a little creaky, but still charming in spite of its flaws.
Like Cole's previous film, Saving Grace, Calendar Girls is situated firmly in the parochial world of middle England. It positions itself as a whimsical and gentle comedy, which seeks to poke fun at institutions like the church, golf clubs and the WI whilst also embracing them as its target audience. The film is quintessentially British, with any celebration of the characters and their spirit being tempered by self-deprecation and deadpan humour. Whether you can enjoy or appreciate the film depends to a large extent on your level of entrenchment within this world, and your resulting opinion of its culture and traditions.
Calendar Girls has a more interesting and stronger story than Saving Grace, as well as a more stellar cast and a higher budget. But they do have a number of similarities. Both films deal with issues of death and loneliness in a genuine and earnest way, which includes being able to laugh at it and find opportunity for good deeds in bad circumstances. Both focus on women who are let down or abandoned by men and have to assert their identity - in this case through their sexuality and natural beauty. And both have structural deficiencies which prey on one's mind even as we are being charmed by the characters.
If nothing else, the film deserves credit for the positive and engaging roles it accords to women, especially to older women. So much of mainstream cinema is catered exclusively to the interests of teenage boys, with women either young or old being increasingly restricted to a series of clichéd, stereotypical or otherwise limiting roles. Calendar Girls goes to great lengths to flesh out its female characters (no pun intended), treating their age and circumstances with respect and allowing them to speak for themselves.
Along with similar entries in Cole's back catalogue, the film has drawn comparisons with The Full Monty. It might seem disparaging to call one a rip-off of the other, since both are based on true stories of groups who would have had no interaction in the real world. Nevertheless, the similarities go beyond the emphasis on or role of nudity, with many of the character traits feeling like transpositions. But while the make-up of the Calendar Girls does conform to convention (the organiser, the shy one, the reluctant one etc.), they do still feel like real people; even if the real-life ladies did not correspond exactly to these roles, we still believe that these people could exist.
Like Saving Grace, the film is at its strongest when it tackles the female characters head-on, particularly in dealing with their insecurities and their need to conform to or break from designated gender roles. The character development of each of the main women involves changes in their relationships to men and said men's attitudes towards them. Ruth stands up to her cheating husband, Annie comes to terms with her grief for John, Chris goes through a difficult patch with her husband and son, and so on. But while men play a significant part, the film is very careful not to define its female characters entirely by these relationships. It's not exactly Women's Lib, but they are very much their own people.
The humour of Calendar Girls is very gentle and tasteful. There are a few risqué lines which cover the girls' sexual proclivities, but it's not a film in which you roar with laughter or gasp at the mention of something scandalous. It's the kind of comedy that produces knowing, light-hearted sniggers and chuckles, which in itself is no bad thing. The film isn't trying to pull in younger viewers with darker, edgier humour - it doesn't need to. It knows its target audience and plays exactly to their needs and expectations.
Because the humour is so safe and gentle, it gives the sadder moments in the story more time to breathe. In a very dark or edgy comedy like Heathers or Dr. Strangelove, the comedy is often taken to such daring extremes that any small feeling of sadness is commuted to a deeper or larger feeling, such as abandonment or despair. In Dr. Strangelove you weep for the whole or humanity, while laughing at the absurdity of existence. In Calendar Girls the grief is far smaller and more personal, with all the sad moments being well-judged and touchingly executed.
In terms of its tone and approach to character, Calendar Girls has its suggestive props arranged in all the right places. But the composition starts to suffer when we look it as a piece of narrative. In addition to its higher budget, the film is longer and baggier than Saving Grace, and many of the later scenes increase the scale while eroding the emotional intimacy. The stage play is more modest in its number of locations, but it is more effective as sustaining this feeling.
Part of the problem lies in Cole's approach as a director. He is a very good actors' director, someone who understands characters and who knows how to get natural performances out of anyone he works with. As a visual artist, however, he is pretty workmanlike, with conventional choices of angles, fairly standard compositions and colour choices which are effective but not memorable. This film suffers from the fact that he likes montage a little too much, using it well during the shooting of the calendar but becoming overly reliant on it as the story gathers weight.
The film also loses its way when it goes to America. Even if this part reflected the real-life story entirely, it feels like a distraction from both the plot and the emotional development of the characters. The film already risks becoming episodic, due to Cole's use of montage, but this entire sequence could and should have been cut. Cole's familiarity with English culture does not carry over to America, giving us an off-putting, touristy view of Hollywood complete with a gratuitous cameo by Jay Leno.
The problem with the Hollywood section is that it causes the majority of the emotional tension between the characters to be put on hold. The major argument between Chris and Annie still carries some weight, but it would carry far more if it wasn't staged so deliberately, on a stage as alien and far removed as a Hollywood back-lot. Equally, Chris' husband and son have their concerns and struggles needlessly pushed to the back: if they were really so important, they should have been given the screen time they deserve. As it stands the husband problem is resolved fairly generically, and the son's subplot is so underdeveloped it should have been cut as well.
Ultimately the film is a character piece rather than a rigorous drama, and fortunately the performances are good enough across the board to hold our attention. Helen Mirren and Julie Walters are perfectly cast, with the latter playing against type and impressing in the quieter, more sombre moments. Celia Imrie is playing to type, but she brings the same sense of refined mischief that made her collaborations with Victoria Wood so enjoyable. The supporting cast may be packed with famous faces (including John Fortune and Annette Crosby from One Foot in the Grave), but unlike Saving Grace we aren't so distracted by the presence of famous faces that it takes us out of the moment. There's even an appearance by Graham Crowden in his last film role: he has little to do but compliments Crosby very well.
Calendar Girls is a ropey but enjoyable comedy which charms its way into our hearts even as our heads point out all that is wrong with it. It's one of the rare occasions where the stage adaptation is more successful than the film, retaining more of the desired character intimacy and being altogether more focussed. But ultimately the film succeeds as a piece of entertainment, delivering a fair amount of laughs and showing quite a lot of heart.