Even though the cinema is full of buddy movies and mindless stupid comedies, the joy of friendship, through good times and bad, isn’t celebrated enough in film, yet it is the heart and soul of this wonderful 2003 British comedy-drama.
A group of older friends in the small Yorkshire town of Knapely are members of the local Women’s Institute (WI), an organization dedicated to the advancement of women. Every week, they attend lectures on various mundane topics and take place in the competitions for sewing and baking. Chris (Helen Mirrin) is a buddy of Annie (Julie Walters) and she delights in making fun of these inane little events and the yearly calendar the WI puts out with pictures of flowers or bridges. She helps her husband, Rod (Ciarán Hinds) run the local florist shop and they are raising a teenage son, Jem (John-Paul Macleod). They decide to ask Annie’s husband, John (John Alderton), a connoisseur of flowers who works for the national park, to give a talk at the WI, but he reveals that he has cancer (leukemia). Although he writes a lovely speech, comparing the women of Yorkshire to flowers, he dies before he can give it and Chris ends up reading it instead. The combination of this writing and a the presence of a nude calendar at the local bicycle repair shop gives her the idea to do a nude WI calendar to raise money to replace the sofa in the family waiting room of the cancer wing at the local hospital. She recruits Annie and their friends in the WI as models.
After many trials (including setting up a photoshoot with a trusted photographer, swilling a little wine to grease their courage, going through with the shoot, each getting naked, and somehow convincing the WI to go along with their idea), the calendar is finally released. Not only is it a resounding success locally, but the British press pick up the story and the little town is beset with photographers and journalists. Rod is a little put off by all the press and Jem is embarrassed that his mother has appeared naked in a calendar, but Hollywood calls and six of the women set off for Tinseltown to do an interview with Jay Leno.
With all of the exposure, Chris’s friendship with Annie is sorely tested and the two women must decide for themselves what is truly important in their lives.
Based on a true story, the screenplay by Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi is truly funny, not at the expense of these middle-aged (or older) women who make a nude calendar, but in respect to the strain on family and friendship that such celebrity creates. It treats the drama very tenderly, with respect and restraint. The direction by Nigel Cole is so cozy and kindly it creates a sense of warm familiarity that draws the viewer inside the story.
The performances are uniformly beautiful. Helen Mirrin and Julie Walters create true, believable, and very warm characters, so real that we wish we actually knew them. The other women are all great, especially Linda Bassett as Cora, the piano player, and Penelope Wilton as Ruth, a woman whose husband has gone wandering. Ciarán Hinds and John Alderton are both terrific as the understanding husbands.
The nudity is very brief, mostly suggested, and very tastefully done. In a story about friendship, it may be the driving plot device, but it certainly isn’t what the movie is about.
This is a wonderful film that I am happy to recommend to everyone.