There’s a slick, comforting charm underpinning scrappy comedy drama Military Wives, a film that squeezes a well-known true story into the crowd-pleasing packaging of a feelgood Britcom. It’s no real surprise when one takes a glance at the credits since director Peter Cattaneo’s 1997 hit The Full Monty virtually provided the blueprint, and while he’s had difficulty repeating its success ever since, he might have a decent-sized hit on his hands here.
To many Brits at least, the loose facts of the Military Wives choir’s rise to fame will ring a bell or two, the women who turned a therapeutic hobby into a chart-topping success. Inspired by, rather than tied to, the true story, the film focuses on two women and their differing attempts to raise the spirits of those left behind at a military base. With their partners away in Afghanistan, the women fall into a familiar routine, glumly aware of what lies ahead as they either wait for their return or for news they hope will never arrive. It’s a mode of living that Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas) knows all too well, her son killed in battle while her husband continues to fight and as she hands over social committee duties to Lisa (Sharon Horgan), she finds it difficult to let go.
Kate is uptight and chilly while Lisa is laidback and unconventional and the two clash as they find ways to distract the women around them. But an uneasy partnership is formed as they decide upon a choir, an idea that grows into something neither of them could have expected.
We’re in safe, formulaic territory here, think Calendar Girls with less nudity and more harmonising, and it’s the film’s strict adherence to the rules of the subgenre that proves to be both a blessing and a curse. It works for the most part because, when done well, there’s something irresistible about the formula and Cattaneo, along with writers Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, knows how to play his audience like an instrument: cheer here, laugh there, cry now etc. We know where we’re going, not just because the story is based on facts, but because we’ve essentially seen this all before and there’s a simple yet undeniable pleasure to be had following the wives on their road to success.
But there are also times when Military Wives starts to creak, when you can sense the script straining to effortlessly implant the true story into the by-the-numbers structure of the Britcom. Some of the earlier conflict seems forced and low-stakes and some of the music scenes play a little too earnestly, the tonal shift between crowd-pleasing humour and heart-swelling drama not always working so well. What ultimately makes the whole thing sing is its central pair, two performances that carry the film even through its most mediocre moments. Horgan is a gifted comic performer with the rare ability of taking often rather plain dialogue and turning it into something special while Scott Thomas is a pro at handling the light and the dark, bringing much-needed depth to her character’s grief process. The two are both snugly in their wheelhouses but that sort of adds to the film’s comfort food appeal and without their combined talents, the script’s bum notes wouldn’t be half as easy to forgive.
There’s nothing here you won’t have seen before or can’t see coming but still, Military Wives is a film that’s hard to entirely resist, like a song that you’ll hum along to even if you forget the tune straight after.
Source: The Guardian