A group of women set up a choir on a military base while their partners are on a tour of duty on Afghanistan.
I cried so much during Military Wives – to put it in resolutely British terms, a light drizzle turned into a cloudburst and then a solid, steady downpour – I should probably now come with a flood warning.
I started weeping at about the 80 minute mark and didn’t let up until the end, where I had a very brief respite before an eye-poppingly cheesy yet searingly honest big finish set me off on a new round of blubbing.
Directed by The Full Monty‘s Peter Cattaneo, Military Wives does sound like your average Britflick: “inspired” by a true story; added heft from brilliant British thespians (often women over 40 because… well we know why); a coming together of disparate characters with barely camouflaged faultlines; and disaster turning to triumph.
But it’s considerably darker than its fun but formulaic premise would indicate.
Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan are a brilliantly harried double act, their barbs aimed at the wrong target and fuelled not by spite but fear. Listening to their characters’ growing antagonism is like waiting for bubbling lava to break through an unstable Earth’s crust – you know it’s coming, and it’ll be explosive. You just don’t know when.
You should still come out uplifted rather than depressed though, if a little soggy – thanks to its wit and those top notch performances.
And while the jumps from disastrous caterwauling to charming harmonies sometimes feel too quick, overall Military Wives is well-paced as it peers into the psyches of women whose families exist for months at a time in a no man’s land of uncertainty.
That uncertainty permeates their lives on the base – they have no official function, yet the Military needs them to step up, whether it’s arranging social events or rallying round when bad news comes home from Afghanistan. Military Wives is really about these women finding a permanent place in a family.
Writers Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard do seem to have done their research into what life on an army base is like, from the “blueys” (airmail letters) home to the almost perfunctory, even spiky goodbyes: the business of family life, and the women’s anger and worry at their partners leaving, getting in the way of the sugary exclamations of adoration with which movies often anaesthetise us. (Scott Thomas grew up on military bases and also knows all too well the dangers of life in the Forces – both her dad and stepdad were pilots, dying in aircraft accidents a few years apart.)
For some of the wives, it’s their first time. Sarah (an impressive Amy James-Kelly) is newly married – not as a romantic gesture but because he wants her to be his official next of kin should anything happen.
Kate (Scott Thomas), the colonel’s wife, is watching Richard (Greg Wise) walk out of the front door on tour for the fifth time.
We first see her literally pulling rank driving back onto the base, annoyed that the soldier at the gate – mindful of tighter security now there’s a war on – demands ID before letting her through.
But shortly after, as night falls and the soldiers, including her husband, walk out of the little red brick houses, they all look the same in their identikit fatigues and rucksacks.
Also saying goodbye is Lisa (Horgan), wife of the newly promoted sergeant major – an elevation which means she too is newly promoted, to the unofficial role of maintaining the spirits of the wives.
At home Kate whiles away the evenings buying unneccessary kitchen gadgets she never even opens. Lisa meanwhile is struggling with teenage daughter Frankie (India Amarteifio), bored on the base and desperate to have some fun.
When someone suggests a singing club the interfering Kate and the laid-back, disorganised Lisa work together while constantly winding each other up, in a low key private war of attrition that’s fought over coffee mornings, in the NAAFI shop on the base and in endless choir practices.
Kate wants order and focus, so the women can take their minds off their worries, or perhaps – as she recommends uninspired hymns not sung since school – fall asleep from sheer boredom. Lisa wants pop anthems everyone knows, after-practice beers and fun.
Lisa bounces meanderingly through life, in her comfy wide legs trousers and tucked-in slouchy shirts; Kate if anything looks a little too frumpy for Scott Thomas’s gobsmacking gorgeousness, in her Jaeger classics with a dash of Country Casuals thrown in, topped off with those awful thinly padded gilets. And the whole choir is a glorious tribute to mom jeans and bootcuts.
Gradually Kate and Lisa forge an uneasy truce, as the choir improves and is invited to perform at the Royal Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall.
Kate may be lecturing Lisa that the women need the choir but really it’s she who needs it – Scott Thomas is devastating as she gradually reveals the depths of Kate’s loneliness, caused by something not her fault (the death of their soldier son) and made worse because she can’t get close to anyone.
Class, age, rank and heartbreak are an almost impermeable barrier between Kate and the other women. She is extraordinarily brittle, her smile as chilly as a winter sun, her glossy dark brown bob and classic clothes her armour. Never able to simply hug anyone, she pats weeping women on the shoulder and tells them brightly not to be silly.
Yet what really makes the film sing (sorry, but I’ve done well to limit myself to one pun here) is that it’s not just the Lisa and Kate show. Several of the other women in the choir are properly thought-out characters rather than backing singer fillers.
Jess (Gaby French) and Sarah are shy and unconfident but in different ways, and both find their voices (argh sorry again). And I particularly liked Ruby, played by Lara Rossi. Already unlike the others as she’s waiting for her soldier wife to return, Ruby is seen as a terrible singer when really it’s just taking a while to find the best place for her voice within the choir.
The soundtrack, as they get to grips with their singing and prepare for their first local performance, is enjoyably ’80s, though only songs with lyrics that could be seen as describing their situation make it in – there are no Duran Duran songs here, lyrics apparently put together via random word generators.
Think instead The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me, Yazoo’s Only You, Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time, and Tears For Fears’ Shout – that last one a noisy, unruly and extremely cathartic yell of jumbled emotions and a refusal to be ignored.
Watch the Military Wives trailer now:
Sarah’s husband is killed on the tour of Afghanistan. Kate and Lisa fall out, partly because Lisa writes a song for the Royal Albert Hall – including snippets from letters between the couples – that references something Kate said to her about her son who died. At the last minute Kate gets her husband to drive her to London and she joins in the (very successful) concert. The credits include footage of military wives’ choirs from around the world singing We Are Family. Yes I did download the soundtrack straight after, what of it.