In these times of pandemic isolation it’s no crime to look for the film equivalent of comfort food. Military Wives, though deeply reliant on formula and wrapped in a blanket of bland, fits the bill. Available on VOD this week, the film is a fictionalized take on the true tale of the wives and lovers of British soldiers serving in Afghanistan who formed a women’s choir to sing out their joys and fears. Their stories became a hit series on the BBC and spawned a No. 1 song, “Wherever You Are,” on the UK charts in 2011.
Crowd-pleasing director Peter Cattaneo, an Oscar nominee for 1997’s The Full Monty, seemed a no-brainer to bring Military Wives to the screen. What a shame that the screenplay by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard ignores the fact that truth is invariably stranger and more fun than fiction and goes about mucking up a good thing with schmaltz. Don’t worry too much. The ladies of the cast, headed by sublime KristIn Scott Thomas and sassy Sharon Horgan, quickly get things back up to speed.
Scott Thomas plays Kate, the wife of the colonel (Greg Wise) who’s the ranking officer on the Flitcroft military base. When the colonel is again deployed to active duty, Kate feels the need to take charge of the women left behind. That task is usually left to the wife of the second in command, i.e. Lisa (Horgan, the brilliant Irish star of the TV show Catastrophe). Though free-wheeling Lisa makes allowances for the formal Kate, whose only son died in combat, she has her own way of doing things. These two are oil and water; of course they’ll mix by the film’s conclusion!
For activities, Kate suggests readings of the classics or studying the art of cinema auteurs while Lisa prefers potluck parties and pub crawls. When a choir is decided on, the women revolt against Kate’s lofty hymns and gravitate toward Lisa’s taste for the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” One guess who wins. (You haven’t lived till you seen Dame Kristin bop out to Yaz’s “Only You.”) The choristers are a ragtag group with participants awkwardly feeling their way into unison. The script cuts the characters along generic lines, such as the shy Welsh girl with the killer voice and the lesbian hairdresser whose wife is serving on the front. Which soldier’s wife will be widowed? How about the pretty one whose livewire husband made her laugh by arranging the kids toys in sexual positions? The morality of the war is hardly mentioned, except when Lisa refuses to sign a peace petition against the soldiers by simply saying, “we’re married to them.”
Cattaneo’s job is to get the women to London’s legendary Royal Albert Hall where the Military Wives Choir has been chosen to compete at the Festival of Remembrance with a new song Lisa has composed from letters sent home by the men. Kate objects to Lisa using her private to “fill a gap in your crass, sentimental ballad.” And Lisa lashes out at Kate for having “a husband who’d rather go to war than stay home with you.” All wounds are healed by the time the wives gather on stage to sing “Home Thoughts from Abroad,” a new song that Robbie Williams co-wrote for the film. There will be tears. Count on it. And since the Choir sparked a global movement that brings military wives together to sing for charity, it’s hard to deny saluting a film whose heart rarely wanders from the right place.