‘Military Wives’ Is Nearly Kitsch Perfect

by Warren Cantrell on May 22, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

A feel-good story based on real events and people, Military Wives is often breezy, sometimes poignant, and rarely offensive. It’s Pitch Perfect meets Renaissance Man, and while this incarnation doesn’t have the catchy pop sensibilities of the former, or the Danny DeVito of the latter, it does alright for itself and tells its story well.

Set about ten years ago at the Flitcroft military base in England, the film opens with the soldiers there preparing to leave for deployment in Afghanistan. The spouses of these men and women all do their best to keep a stiff upper lip as they prepare their households for the departures, but it is clearly an emotional time for everyone. The colonel at the head of the deployment is married to Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has taken it upon herself to lead the women on base through the ordeal just as her husband will for the men in the desert. Yet this role is traditionally the responsibility of the unit’s sergeant major, whose wife, Lisa (Sharon Horgan), takes a hands-off, laid back approach to things.

While Lisa and the other wives are content to focus their energies on kids and the occasional wine party, empty-nester Kate insists that they keep busy with something to maintain morale. Pushing her way to the front of the social circle to have her voice heard, just as she does at the base PX or guard house, Kate compels the women to form a choir. The wives comply, yet only begin to show enthusiasm for the project when Lisa injects some levity and more modern music into their rehearsals.

As Military Wives moves into its second act, the choir begins to find their voice as the push and pull between the more insouciant and easy-going Lisa and the serious-minded Kate plays out. Both Horgan and Thomas do excellent work with the well-written and fleshed out characters the script gives to them, and never fall into tropes or archetypes as a means to keep the tension between them heightened. Kate’s backstory with her husband and adult son is portioned out well throughout the narrative and serves as a realistic counterpoint to Lisa’s home life. And while a subplot about Lisa’s teenage daughter and her growing connection to Kate gets a payoff near the end, it is one of the few components of script that does not entirely work for the two leads.  

The other wives in the choir don’t get the same attention or character work, and the film does suffer a bit for that. There is an inevitable casualty during deployment at one point, yet the soldier’s widow, while indeed part of the choir, is such an empty vessel of a character that the emotional impact of the tragedy doesn’t really register. Other wives exist in the script as little more than comic relief, or in the case of the Jess character (Gaby French), as the requisite amazing voice trapped inside an insecure personality.  

It’s kitschy and predictable and manipulative and yet despite all of that it’s hard not to enjoy. Director Peter Catteneo, who also helmed believe-in-yourself music-minded fluff like The Full Monty, Lucky Break, and The Rocker, knows who to position these characters for a rousing finale, and which songs to play along the way to keep the audience’s toes tapping. Although the side characters don’t get much of a story or an emotional payoff, Kate and Lisa absolutely do, and the confrontation between the pair that everyone knows is coming lands amazingly well because of it.

Jason Flemyng pops into a few scenes to do some great work as a captain of Flitcroft, who is minding the base during the deployment, and is one of the choir’s most enthusiastic supporters. India Ria Amarteifio also does well with the handful of scenes she gets as Lisa’s rebellious daughter, who is a little too smart for her own good, yet not nearly as clever as she thinks she is. It would have been nice to see more of these two, however, along with the other wives in the choir, who again, don’t get very much attention in the script.

Still, it works. The arc is predictable, sure, and the crass manipulation of using “Don’t You Want Me” by Human League as the song that gets the choir going is as naked as a newborn, but hey, it’s a fun song and this is a fun movie. Thomas and Horgan lift the whole effort with their performances, and the lived-in rivalry/friendship that develops between them works well enough to plug most of the other gaps in the script. The story is breezy, and even though there’s strangely almost no discussion about the U.K. government’s involvement in a very unpopular war, it never feels out of place or deliberately dismissive of such concerns. Opening today, Military Wives might not be unique or particularly exciting, but it will be waiting with open arms whenever one finds their way home to it.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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