Military Wives‘ title and film poster suggests ‘entry only to female viewers in the barracks’ and chick flick territory – no men permitted. True, it does champion solidarity, companionship and ultimately respect among a group of mismatched women with the British Army in common. However, Military Wives is also from director Peter Cattaneo who delighted mixed-gender audiences with hearty social commentary The Full Monty in 1997. Much like that film, the gender of the protagonists is actually rendered inconsequential against the film’s more urgent topics of class, community and overcoming adversity. Cattaneo certainly knows how to orchestrate his screen misfits into a collective force for goodwill and joy as a result.
Loosely based on the true story of the formation of a military wives’ choir by choirmaster Gareth Malone, where Cattaneo’s account is initially patchy in its delivery, the credit for picking up the slack goes to its brilliant leads. Kristin Scott Thomas plays by-the-book Colonel’s wife Kate who puts on a brave face every day and hands over the women’s social activities mantel to Lisa, played by Sharon Horgan. Lisa is a new sergeant’s wife, popular among her female peers on site, but acutely aware of the effects of her spouse’s promotion to higher rank on her social standing among the soldiers’ wives. She also has an ear for music. Through Kate and Lisa’s often passive-aggressive then more fluid interactions, the film’s comedy bubbles up. It also looks soberly at coping with change and bereavement through the rigid class structure in the forces, and how to navigate its barriers along the way to survive, which is quite intriguing itself.
The film’s clunky start, although necessary to set the scene and give an insight into the different characters’ personalities misfires somewhat and merely highlights some stilted acting from the supporting cast and flatter comedy moments. However, once the choir begins singing to keep spirits up and remain occupied while “the boys and girls are away” on a tour of duty in Afghanistan, Cattaneo’s film really picks up the pace and becomes far wittier, charming and very relevant on its social issues.
For those who have experienced Army life for real – Scott Thomas included, there is a lot of truth to the film’s depiction too. It really captures the ‘limbo’ feeling of half a community left behind to carry on day-to-day living, but forever on tenterhooks in the meantime. Cattaneo’s grey palette is punctuated by brighter hues as the women bond and grow in emotional strength during their time singing together. Indeed, as narratives go, Military Wives is shamelessly formulaic and the outcome obvious from the start, but as with his 1997 film, part of Cattaneo’s expertise is getting the audience fully onside with his characters and experiencing their emotions along the way, so you truly feel you have journeyed with them, and are equally rewarded with a wave of euphoria at the end.
As uplifting and delightful as Military Wives is, its uneven delivery in parts may not make it an instant, all-time hit like The Full Monty. But its catalyst of the central powerhouse performance from Scott Thomas and Horgan as they forge their unlikely (on Civvy Street) but ultimately inspirational bond, coupled with a few karaoke tunes and a heart-rending end number could surprise all yet at the box office.
Military Wives opens Friday 6th March