It’s hard to live with constant fear. Checking the news, almost obsessively. Sleeping alone in a big, empty bed. Feeling lonely and with not much to do. Jumping in fright every time the phone rings or there’s an unexpected knock on the door. Panicking at the thought of receiving bad news that would turn your life upside down.
Everyone is familiar with how terrible wars are. They are often in the news agenda and on our screens. There are plenty of war movies, many of them in the action genre, with a bellicose theme, portraying the hardness of war or the bravery of those who fight for ideals. But, what about their families? What happens to the ones who are left behind?
Military Wives, the new comedy-drama film by British director Peter Cattaneo addresses this issue, telling the story of a group of women living in a military base, while their partners are deployed in Afghanistan. The movie is inspired by a true story that became a three-episode BBC docu-series in 2011, called The Choir: Military Wives. In it, Gareth Malone, a professional choirmaster, got the wives of British soldiers deployed in Afghanistan together and trained them to sing in a choir. These women served as inspiration for the movie, but besides that, the plot is basically fictional, as well as the characters.
One of the protagonists in Military Wives is Lisa, played by Sharon Horgan. She works in a convenience store in the base and struggles with single parenthood, raising a bored teenage girl who enjoys drinking too much. As she is married to the staff sergeant, Lisa is supposed to organize regular communal gatherings and activities to distract the wives and keep their morale up, even though she is a bit reluctant. Difficulties arise when Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas), the colonel’s wife, meddles in Lisa’s social committee duties. In one of the meetings, the wives decide to create a choir, and it’s then that Lisa and Kate clash. Their personalities are antagonistic, and they have a different approach on how to direct the choir. Lisa is easy-going and chilled, whereas Kate is uptight, traditional, and bossy. One is happy singing pop songs, and the other opts for classical hymns.
Rehearsal after rehearsal, what started as a hobby becomes a big hit. But the wives’ happiness is abruptly altered: in war, there are always casualties. Eventually, their latent fear materializes and bad news arrives. One of their husbands has died in combat. The scene is cleverly recreated; two officials, walking towards the homes, with a stern look that leaves no doubt to what kind of news they will deliver. As they walk towards the homes, the viewers don’t know who will receive the devastating news. It’s a cruel random lottery; it could be anyone.
Overall, Military Wives is pleasant and entertaining, with generally good interpretations. Kristin Scott Thomas has one of the most complex characters and is remarkable as Kate. Underneath Kate’s brittleness and emotional repression, there’s a strong vulnerability. She tries hard to convince everyone (and herself) that she is okay, when she is not. Keeping her house clean and compulsively shopping is her way of filling the gap left by her sons, who died in combat, and her husband’s departure to Afghanistan, one more time.
If interesting and funny, Military Wives is also very predictable. There are no twists, no unexpected plot points, and no surprises. Some scenes seem a bit far-fetched, and a few characters a little caricatured, such as the rough lesbian who sings loud but is tone-deaf, and the shy Welsh woman who doesn’t want to take part in the choir but surprisingly has a soprano voice. However, that doesn’t make the movie less heartwarming, and the story is completely up-lifting. Without being an overly dramatic film, you can find yourself tearing up at the end.
As the wives perfect their singing, harmony is not only found in the melody of the song but also in the relationships that grow between them. They are emotionally connected and help and support each other. After all, they are all going through the same tough experience. Their partners are in Afghanistan but the women are also fighting a war on their own. It’s not a war of guns or bombing; it’s an emotional war. And they are stronger together.
Most of the indoor scenes, including the coffee morning and song rehearsals, were filmed at Kingston Upon Thames.