Military Wives, 2019.
Directed by Peter Cattaneo.
Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sharon Horgan, Jason Flemyng, Greg Wise, Amy James-Kelly, Emma Lowndes, Lara Rossi, India Amarteifio, Laura Checkley, Roxy Faridany, Colin Mace and Gaby French.
With their partners away serving in Afghanistan, a group of military spouses and family form a choir that quickly gains enough momentum to spark the beginnings of a global movement.
From Peter Cattaneo, director of The Full Monty, comes Military Wives. It’s another film easily described as an unashamedly British tale of a ragtag group coming together through necessity, before bonding properly in solidarity and spirit. However, where The Full Monty feels fresh and unexpected, Military Wives sometimes struggles to lift itself beyond its more predictable limitations – even though it is inspired by true events that really are quite moving.
The essence of Military Wives’ casting seems very appropriate – Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan certainly suit their roles as uptight CO’s wife Kate and more earthy RSM’s wife Lisa, respectively. As pillars of their local Armed Forces community (whether they like it or not), they are relied upon to keep up morale on the base while serving spouses are in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick. Alongside dealing with their own demons, a choir is bumpily birthed under their leadership that brings together the wives and girlfriends into a closer-knit group (although knitting itself quickly proved too difficult). Greg Wise and Jason Flemyng, as the two most prominent males in this female-driven story, also convince as the right sort of “type” to be military men. Their characters of Commanding Officer (Wise) and Families’ Officer (I assume, for Flemyng, as it’s never really defined) are rather lightly sketched, though. Featured more as foil to the wives, this isn’t necessarily so bad, given the context of the film.
A main criticism of Military Wives is its tendency to over-simplify and exaggerate certain scenarios and roles. Although it’s accurate that there’s generally a difference in socio-economic background between soldiers’ families and officers’ families, it’s sometimes a little too heavily played on. Kate is often the sole “posh” fish out of water, out of touch with any of the other members of the choir – but there’d be more officers’ partners around. Also, although it is the nature of the film, a lot of emphasis is put on the ladies as “wives and girlfriends of” and, depending on where you’re posted, a lot of your life will be dictated by the serving partner’s career – but many military spouses are busy with their own careers too.
Having said this, for every moment where Kristin Scott Thomas is chirpily lax with protocol (ID is always necessary upon entry to a base, no exception) there are many details that do ring true: coffee mornings as a go-to activity, “blueys”, sinks in the bedrooms of army quarters, care parcels, the BFBS – and yes, the popularity of Barbour jackets. Military Wives has also done well with capturing the blunt, sometimes gallows-esque humour used by the Forces community when you really do just have to keep calm and carry on with it all (sorry). For example, one choir member’s belated realisation that, “I’m not a minor – I’m just shit”, and the brutal practicality of understanding, when picking a coffin for a loved one killed in action, that he’s “going to need a lid”.
The importance of being able to blow off steam for these wives – be it through shouty singing in choir or shouty karaoke in a bar – is also properly emphasised; it can be tough to shoulder the strain of combat tours for the partner at home who has no control over the circumstances – or even communication. A sinking heart every time the phone or doorbell rings, for fear of the worst news, is a side effect that goes with the territory.
Military Wives also doesn’t shy away from the tougher moments, reflected in song, be it Tears For Fears’ ‘Shout’ or an emotional rendition of ‘Ave Maria’. The choir’s journey during the film, however, is rather formulaic, with the shy but brilliant singer doing a solo (very Sister Act, although Gaby French does have a lovely voice), the tone-deaf but blissfully unaware singer, and the group having to pull together in the face of adversity before a triumphant public performance – and that last bit’s no spoiler, because it’s just how it happened in real life. It’s a predictable journey, and on occasion this seems to drag the film down into mediocrity.
Despite this disappointment, Military Wives makes enough room for some personality and a few zingy lines. There’s a knowing Brit Award scoff, a comment on the logistics of “handing out BJs” – and a well-placed “Can you take care of that, Captain?” from the CO. More of that could have lifted the film to a consistently higher standard of quality. As it is though, despite the downsides of some more run-of-the-mill story and script choices, Military Wives successfully deploys its (generally) Forces-brand of humour well, alongside knowing where and when to pack the emotional punch. And like the choirs it was inspired by, it’s pretty uplifting stuff.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★