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“Great music doesn’t happen when things are perfect,” says Sharon Horgan’s brassy Lisa in this formulaic yet ultimately winning British dramedy. “It happens when you care.” That’s a truism that could equally be applied to the film itself, an “inspired by real events” crowd-pleaser from The Full Monty director Peter Cattaneo. Military Wives may indeed be far from perfect (to say it flirts with cliche is to understate its enthusiastic commitment to contrivance), yet for all its manipulative flaws, this goodhearted tale of the partners of service personnel finding musical strength together works the kind of movie magic that will leave you laughing and crying, often against your better judgment.
Kristin Scott Thomas is splendid as the brittle colonel’s wife Kate, stoically grieving the loss of her beloved son Jamie, who followed his father into the forces. When her increasingly distanced husband, Richard (Greg Wise, nicely underplayed), heads off to Afghanistan for yet another tour of duty, Kate tries to fill the void by playing a more active role with the spouses and partners left behind at the base. Meanwhile, Lisa finds herself charged with the new responsibilities of rallying the troops at home by organising coffee mornings, cake bakes and knitting circles.
It all seems “a bit Little Women”, until someone suggests a singing group – a grand idea that puts the classically inclined Kate on a collision course with the more freethinking Lisa, who has no intention of “singing Onward Christian Soldiers with a pole up your arse”. Instead, she gets the group to take a run at familiar 80s pop classics (Don’t You Want Me, Only You etc), to the horror of Kate who remains unimpressed by such “sober karaoke”. Nevertheless, it all starts to come together, and the prospect of this ragtag band performing in public promptly heaves into view.
Viewers of the BBC Two show The Choir: Military Wives, which memorably climaxed at the Festival of Remembrance in the Royal Albert Hall in 2011, will recognise the basic coordinates of the plot. It’s no surprise that these women are on the road to great things, like the heroines of Nigel Cole’s 2003 Brit-pic Calendar Girls, which had a similarly plucky, upbeat feel. En route, they will encounter melodrama aplenty, as tragedy and triumph are intertwined in a wholly predictable dramatic arc, punctuated by slightly awkward moments of air‑punching musical feelgoodness.
It’s unashamedly broad-strokes fare, with characters occasionally reduced to thumbnails (the one who can’t sing, but can; the one who can sing but can’t) in service of a well-rehearsed narrative. Despite the constant threat of loss, there’s little of the earthy heft that drove Mark Herman’s superior Brassed Off toward its own Albert Hall finale. Instead we get talk of “top brass” and “tall poppies” as the story barrels toward late-in-the-day breakups and 11th-hour resolutions, complete with an obligatory Richard Curtis-style race against time to crank up the third act.
Yet only the most hardhearted viewer could resist getting swept up in what Cattaneo rightly calls a celebration of “the emotional power of music, and the catharsis of singing together”. I’ve seen Military Wives twice, and both times found myself crying like a baby at several key sequences. It helps that some of the songs at which the group take a swing (notably Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time) are pure emotional kryptonite, annihilating the critical faculties. But there’s more at play here than mere jukebox button-pushing. The scenes between Kate and Lisa have proper comic oomph, with Scott Thomas and Horgan making the most of their chalk-and-cheese pairing, demonstrating whip-smart timing, particularly during the early rehearsals.
More important, talented writers Rachel Tunnard and Rosanne Flynn sprinkle their script with small but well-observed details that really hit home: Lisa packing away her husband’s things in preparation for “another six months of being a single mother”; the silence that follows newbie Sarah (Amy James-Kelly) asking: “How do you cope? Do you not talk about it?”; Kate’s description of an on-base house as “the magnolia box”. These are the notes that ring true, ensuring that the audience are fully invested in the characters when they start writing songs based on phrases from letters to their loved ones.
“We don’t have the privilege of being against the war,” says Lisa in one of the film’s sharper moments, “we’re married to it.” It’s a credit to Miltary Wives that, for a couple of hours, we all feel married to it too – for better or worse.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Military Wives review – on song with chalk-and-cheese Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan | Film