The Christmas number one of 2011 was a one-off, tapping into the powerful combination of a popular TV show and national emotion. Wherever You Are from the Military Wives choir left all the challengers for pole position trailing in its wake and has since become a seasonal favourite. Now it’s the inspiration for a film, one that on the surface appears to be just another in a line of real life singing groups but which manages to offer something more.
Peter Cattaneo’s Military Wives takes its inspiration from the original choir and follows the familiar formula, a group of people who, under normal circumstances, would probably never have much in common but who come together for a good reason/cause. Think Fisherman’s Friends, or Song For Marion. On a military base, the soldiers are departing for their latest tour in Afghanistan, leaving their wives/partners and children behind. Colonel’s wife Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas) is the figurehead among the women, fully aware of her responsibilities but less than approachable. Regimental Sergeant Major’s wife Lisa (Sharon Horgan) takes over running the wives’ activities while their husbands are away and Kate decides to help, but the two are chalk and cheese, constantly pulling against each other. Yet Kate’s idea to form and choir and sing for fun proves popular and they are unexpectedly good, impressing the Brigadier and earning an invitation to sing at The Royal Albert Hall. But tragedy strikes and their big night hangs in the balance.
With a track record that includes The Full Monty, Cattaneo knows exactly how to gently tug on your heartstrings, so this offers something more than just being likeably feel-good. It shines a light on a way of life that others in a similar mould haven’t touched on – one that isn’t overly-familiar to many – making it surprisingly emotional and thought provoking. For anybody without connections to the armed forces, it’s an eye opener in terms of the pressures on military families when one of them is away for a tour of duty. The feeling of dread when “comms are down”, the leap to the mobile phone as soon as it goes off, hanging on every news item, the phone call or the visit that nobody wants to get ….. The film re-creates this well, along with the differences in accommodation between the officers and the lower ranks. The divisions are the same among the women, with Colonel’s wife Kate as the outsider, while Lisa comes somewhere in the middle but, as the RSM will have come up through the ranks, she has more in common with the younger wives and that just fuels their constant needling.
In truth, the characters don’t fare quite so well, with most of them little more than two dimensional – the one who sings out of key all the time, the other who it turns out has a beautiful voice, the no-nonsense northerner. We’ve met them before, but there are some exceptions. There’s a very nice turn from Amy James-Kelly (ex-Coronation Street) as the youngest, the newest arrival and the one who has to face the worst circumstances. She never overplays it, and her performance has a genuine ring of truth about it. Sharon Horgan and Kristin Scott Thomas share a lot of scenes, constantly rubbing each other up the wrong way and, in the acting stakes, it’s honours even with Horgan striking a more earthy tone and Scott Thomas sometimes straying into Hyacinth Bouquet territory.
It’s also a film of two halves, with the tone shifting markedly half way through. All the comedy comes from the choir coming together and its first, less than promising, attempts at performing in public – and then comes the emotional hammer blow that changes everything. Prepare to reach for a tissue because, at some stage, there’s a strong chance of a snuffle – even if it’s caused by the singing and nothing more. So, even if Military Wives doesn’t wholly escape the influence of its predecessors, the points of difference are strong enough to allow the film to stand on its own. And to stick in the memory for just a little longer.
Drama, Comedy | Cert: 12A | Lionsgate | UK, 6 March 2020 | Dir. Peter Cattaneo | Kristin Scott Thomas, Sharon Horgan, Jason Flemyng, Greg Wise, Amy James-Kelly.