Film & Television

“Military Wives’ Sings A Familiar Feel-Good Tune

There’s a familiar feel-good film genre that the Brits do particularly well. A motley crew of ordinary people come together to achieve something aspirational — and inspirational. Sometimes it’s an artistic endeavor; sometimes it’s forging an unlikely alliance in order to stick it to the man. Friendships are made, youthful dreams are rekindled. Projects grow from the silly to the sublime. Everyone leaves the cinema smiling.

Dance was the key to happiness for a struggling mining town in Billy Elliot (2000) and more recently for a troupe of retirees in Finding Your Feet (2017).  Manufacturing provided the backdrop for a feminist strike in Made in Dagenham (2010) and some feminized footwear in Kinky Boots (2005). And both the society ladies of Calendar Girls (2003) and the working-class men of The Full Monty (1997) learned that less was truly more when they stripped for a good cause. 

That last title (which is marvelous, by the way) was directed by Peter Cattaneo, and he earned an Oscar nomination for the effort. His projects since then have been less notable. But with his latest film, Military Wives, he’s returned to fine form. The eponymous spouses, however, don’t take their clothes off. They sing.

Military Wives, with a screenplay by Roseanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, is (loosely) based on a true story. In 2011, the popular BBC television series The Choir devoted its fourth season to a choral group started by two women at Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire. The show’s host, choir conductor Gareth Malone, worked with the base’s wives, and the result was an original song, “Wherever You Are,” that eventually went to number one on the charts and was performed for Queen Elizabeth at the Festival of Remembrance. (If you’re interested in learning more, episodes of The Choir are available on YouTube.)

The setting and characters of Military Wives are fictional, but the movie follows a similar trajectory, adding in for good measure some familiar and predictable film conventions.

The men (and one gay woman) serving at the fictional Flitcroft Garrison are preparing for a mission to Afghanistan. Their spouses are expected to hold down the fort or, as only the English can, “keep calm and carry on.” Beneath their stoic exteriors, the wives are lonely and frightened. Any call, text, or knock on the door can bring tragedy. And anxiety grows when early into the mission, they’re told that “Comms are down.” No news is not necessarily good news.

Lisa (Sharon Horgan), the wife of the unit’s second in command, is charged with keeping the women occupied while they wait out the mission. Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of the unit’s leader (Greg Wise, the real-life Mr. Emma Thompson), isn’t convinced that Lisa’s equipped to do so and selflessly steps in. Lisa is middle-class, struggling to raise a rebellious teenage daughter, and not terribly motivated by any of it. Kate, on the other hand, is snobbish, prim, and precise, the very model of a modern major general’s missus. Lisa is happy to host morning coffee hours and evening cocktails. Kate is looking for something more elevating. Her suggestions — dinner parties focused on international cuisines, a film festival followed by a discussion of the director’s unique perspective — are met with blank stares. After a comical attempt at a knitting club turns into an all-you-can-drink buffet, the wives agree to try forming a choir.



As you’d expect, the odd-couple of Kate and Lisa have very different ideas about what that choir should look — or rather, sound — like. Kate draws on her prep school vocal training, while Lisa remembers her younger days in a garage band. While Kate is aiming for uplifting classical pieces, Lisa finally gets the group excited by having them sing hits by Human League and Cyndi Lauper. Kate scoffs at the idea that the choir is fast turning into “sober karaoke.” The dialogue between the two women as they jockey for leadership is a wonderfully acted display of not-so-very-passive-aggression.

The raggedy ensemble they’re trying to coach includes a dewy-eyed newlywed (Amy James-Kelly), a dedicated “football”-obsessed soccer mom (Laura Checkley), a level-headed stalwart (Emma Lowndes), a belting but tone-deaf lesbian (Lara Rossi), and a shy Welsh lass with legitimate pipes (Gaby French). “Of course, it would be the Welsh one,” one wife rolls her eyes towards another in a joke that goes right over our Yankee heads.

Gradually, the women improve and one of the officers left on base secures them a live engagement at a local market, followed by an invitation to sing at (naturally) The Royal Albert Hall. But first they’ll have to overcome a number of predictable — but still enjoyable — obstacles.

The choir’s rise to national acclaim isn’t without its bumps and setbacks. A really dreadful public performance shakes their confidence even as it provides laughs for those of us watching. With a pep talk from their leaders (still sparring, gently or otherwise), they give it another go.

Their leadership struggles. Kate, whose icy veneer is hiding both her resentment that her husband volunteered for another tour and her grief over the death (in combat) of her only child, opens up to Lisa one evening. Lisa, who decides to write a song based on the letters the wives have received from the front, betrays Kate’s trust. And, when the two finally have it out there is plenty of pent-up anger and downright cruelty on both sides. Tomas and Horgan’s finely synchronized scenes together are some of the film’s strongest.

Tragedy intervenes. The threat of death hangs over Flitcroft’s wives at all times, whether they’re drinking or knitting or singing. True to form (and oddly reminiscent of a scene from A League of Their Own), one wife is indeed notified that her husband has been killed. Without giving away which of the women receives the news, I’ll just share that the widow chooses stony Kate of all people to comfort her, because she knows Kate has experienced her own loss. Thomas delivers a master class of reserved empathy in the brief but memorable scene.

But this is (mostly) a comedy. Consequently, the evening of the Royal Albert Hall performance includes a bus trip into London, as well as a madcap car chase (think Four Weddings and a Funeral). 

And, as expected — and certainly by no means a spoiler — the women perform beautifully. Their triumph is no surprise, but you may need to wipe away a tear a two anyhow.

There’s nothing particularly new about Military Wives; you can see every plot twist and revelation coming for miles. In fact, you may even feel a sort of cinematic déjà vu: “Waitaminute, have I seen this before?” But, the screenplay, direction, and especially the acting from the two leads in particular elevate the formula just enough so you can thoroughly enjoy it. The movie is a nice, neat, and satisfying package. You’ll root for the wives (who wouldn’t?). You’ll feel sorry for them at times and ultimately celebrate their victory. 

The main message, one of solidarity in a time of uncertainty, resonates today more than it probably did when Military Wives premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September or opened in early March in the U.K. There’s a quite wonderful sense of sorority, which is emphasized as the closing credits run to Sister Sledge’s 1979 megahit:

We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up everybody and sing

Military Wives is available to rent on Amazon or to stream on Hulu.


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