An algorithmic zero-to-hero narrative: Military Wives reviewed

7 March 2020

9:00 AM

7 March 2020

9:00 AM

Military Wives

12A, Nationwide

Military Wives is a British comedy drama starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan. It is based on the true story of the service spouses who formed a choir (and were the subject of a BBC documentary series in 2011) and it’s wholly in the style of Calendar Girls, The Full Monty, Brassed off, Kinky Boots etc, but that’s OK as we love all those films. This does shamelessly play you — you’ll laugh; you’ll cry! You may even cry from four minutes in! Like I did! — but you’d be disappointed if it didn’t, just as you’d be disappointed if it didn’t end with Sister Sledge belting out ‘We Are Family’. Oh, God — is that a spoiler? Sorry.

Although the BBC series followed the real-life choir after they enlisted the help of choirmaster Gareth Malone, who may be our very own Benjamin Button — last time I checked he looked about 13 — he has been excised from the story here. I don’t know why (perhaps he is in nappies now and it would be too disturbing). Instead, this story, as written by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, and directed by Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty, fittingly), has sisters doing it for themselves.

One is Kate, who is married to a brigadier. She is uptight and posh and all cashmere and pearls, as played by Sharon Horgan. I’m kidding you. That’s Scott Thomas. The Sharon Horgan character is Lisa who is chaotic and sarcastic and glugs back the wine. But their menfolk have just been deployed to Afghanistan and they must work together on the social committee that arranges activities to keep up the wives’ morale. Actually, Kate was meant to have handed over the reins to Lisa but she finds it impossible to let go.

Thus far, the social committee has not come up with anything beyond a book group and knitting and coffee mornings. Then someone suggests singing (I can’t remember who; some characters are barely sketched, it’s true). Flyers are duly placed all over the base and a disparate group turn up and they’re hopeless at first, of course. Will they improve? Will they? Meanwhile, Kate wants their repertoire to focus on classical hymns while Lisa is after more of a Yazoo vibe so they’re at each other’s throats from the off. (Will they bond? Will they?)

It is an algorithmic zero-to-hero narrative and it does creak in places. Here’s the funny bit, here’s the emotional bit, and here’s the bit where Lisa and Kate have a massive fight just so they can make up in the final moments. You can always see exactly what the film is up to, in other words. But Scott Thomas and Horgan do bring some heft to their characters.

Kate has a son who died in combat and she keeps her grief at bay by ensuring a spotless home and buying rubbish from TV shopping channels and Scott Thomas’s performance did move me, I admit. (From four minutes in!) Meanwhile, Lisa, who had to give up being in a rock band, has a teenage daughter who may be getting out of hand. This is less moving but Horgan is wonderfully watchable. Plus, at moments when this could get too treacly it takes a swerve, as when two men in black step out of a car at the base and you know a soldier has been killed but you don’t yet know which wife they’re about to visit. That was quite heart-stopping.

As for the funny bits, some jokes don’t land, but some do. After the choir’s first disastrous performance, Kate gives a pep talk: ‘In Rocky, when they beat the shit out of him in that first fight, did he give up? Did he sit around crying?’ ‘He did in Rocky 3,’ someone responds. Which is fair.

This is a film that, in short, does everything you expect and nothing you don’t, but that’s OK, because that’s the way we like it. There is even a last-minute dash for someone to get to the Albert Hall on time. Will they make it? Will they? Well, I couldn’t possibly say.

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