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Non-Review Review: Military Wives

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Military Wives is illustrates the appeal in hitting the right notes off the sheet music.

Military Wives is the latest entry in a particularly popular subgenre of midbudget film, the type of movie about a quirky hobby against the backdrop of everyday British life. There are any number of examples, from Swimming With Men to Finding Your Feet to Calendar Girls, arguably extending out to more class-conscious examples like Billy Elliot and Brassed Off. Perhaps the most iconic and successful example, the film which proved the international viability of the format, remains The Full Monty. These are films that largely hinge on an appealing juxtaposition between perceived British stoicism and enjoyable eccentricity.

Military Wives is loosely based on a true story of the military wives choir that became a minor national sensation when it played the Festival of Remembrance in 2011. Indeed, they went on to have a Christmas number one with their song Wherever You Are. However, Military Wives hews very closely to the established template. Once again, there is a conflict between stoicism and whimsy. The stoicism is of the most sombre sort, with the story focusing on the wives of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, waiting to hear word home. The whimsy arises from the juxtaposition of having those wives sing Yazoo and Tears For Fears.

Military Wives never deviates too far from the template, but it doesn’t have to. Rachel Tunnard and Rosanne Flynn’s script understands why this sort of story works, and director Peter Cattaneo (a veteran of The Full Monty) is smart enough to trust actors Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan to carry the film. There is occasionally a sense that Military Waves is working from a rough sketch rather than a finished plan, but it is mostly built to specifications.

The narrative engine of Military Wives is a classic “odd couple” set up between Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan. Scott Thomas is cast as Kate, the sort of emotionally reserved and coldly calculating figure who tends to populate films like this, an arch figure who is inevitably humanised as the drama unfolds. Horgan is cast as a counterpoint, playing Lisa as the sort of disorganised mess who finds herself thrust into a position of authority that she never wanted, but who eventually matures into the sort of leader that she always could have been.

Much of Military Wives consists of a push and pull between Kate and Lisa as the two try to assert control of a choir formed to distract the wives on a military base from the sense of dread and anticipation hanging over their husbands’ service. Kate is goal-oriented, adopting a rigourous and demanding approach that inevitably runs the risk of alienating the members of the choir. In contrast, Lisa’s happy-go-lucky approach has its own limitations, failing to impose the sort of structure that an organisation like a choir desperately needs. Naturally, Kate and Lisa must find a way to unite their approaches for the greater good.

Military Wives runs through the checklist of narrative beats expected in a story like this. Lisa is also a single mother who is struggling to connect with a teenage daughter who seems like a stranger in her own house. Kate is trying to repress any lingering emotional trauma from the death of her only son. The members of the choir inevitably conform to familiar archetypes; the shy-one-who-is-agreat-singer, the confident-one-who-is-not-a-great-singer-but-is-kept-on-any-way, the young-one-who-gets-a-lot-of-moving-back-story-that-inevitably-pays-off-in-the-most-obvious-manner.

There’s nothing in Military Wives that truly surprises. The plot moves in familiar patterns, including the obligatory second act setback for the group and the inevitable third act blow-out argument between Kate and Lisa. Military Wives even somehow manages to shoehorn in its own variant on the classic “chasing someone down at the airport at the climax” beat into a film about a married women’s choir. There are precious few surprises to be found in Military Wives, and it is often easy to predict entire character arcs from snippets of introductory dialogue.

Of course, there’s a reason to adhere so closely to a template like this. It works. Military Wives seems consistently drawn towards Kate more than Lisa, and not just because Scott Thomas is probably the safer bet to do the film’s dramatic heavy lifting. There is a sense in which Kate would approve of her own film’s structure, comfortable in the certainty that everything has its place and function within the ebb and flow of the story’s dramatic arc. Military Wives dutifully sets up and pays off its major dramatic and comedic beats, cleanly and efficiently.

To its credit, Military Wives is genuinely charming, funny and surprisingly moving in places. There’s a lot to like in the film, largely down to a combination of disparate factors that cohere in just the right way. Most obviously, Sharon Horgan and Kristen Scott Thomas make a suitably contrasting oil-and-water duo, with Cattaneo trusting them to carry the film. Military Wives shrewdly leans into their respective strengths; Horgan gets to be funny and immensely charismatic, while the more dramatic material is largely allocated to Thomas.

Similarly, the script manages to maintain a pretty consistent balance between comedy and drama throughout its runtime. It helps that the bulk of the humour is grounded in the mundane and derived from character, allowing the film to pivot towards earnest sincerity when the situation calls for it, without pulling an emotional jackknife. Military Wives only occasionally crosses a line that throws the balance off, most notably in the obligatory third act blow-out between Kate and Lisa that doesn’t quite earn the viciousness of its barbs.

Still, these minor miscalculations aside, Military Wives is a charming and welcome addition to the “Quirk Britannia” genre that includes The Full Monty, Calendar Girls and Billy Elliot, juxtaposing the stiff upper lip with mild eccentricity.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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