Director Peter Cattaneo has taken the feel-good framework of his 1997 hit The Full Monty – in which laid-off steelworkers find joie de vivre in the world of striptease – and shaved it down a little here, reworked it a little there. The result is Military Wives. Sure, it might wither a little under its predecessor’s shadow, but the film’s made of the same hearty stock: twee and cheerful without disrespecting the lived experiences it seeks to make light entertainment out of.
Military Wives takes loose inspiration from a real choir of women, brought together after their partners were deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. They contacted choirmaster Gareth Malone, who had his own BBC series at the time. He helped kick-start several new choirs. A hit single and a live performance at the Festival of Remembrance soon followed. Screenwriters Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, however, jettison Malone from the narrative in favour of a slick, streamlined underdog story – catapulting these women straight from the rec room to the Royal Albert Hall.
The choir in question is packed with the usual suspects. There’s the one who’s shy and withdrawn until she starts belting like it’s the second coming of Adele (Gaby French). Then there’s her opposite: gutsy, but tone-deaf Ruby (Lara Rossi). You can tell who’ll suffer the arbitrary, second act tragedy the moment they open their mouth. But the women tussling for leadership over this canorous pack – Sharon Horgan’s Lisa and Kristin Scott Thomas’ Kate – are spiky and flawed in a way that shakes up the plot’s overwhelming pleasantness. Horgan, in particular, musters up the same kind of cynical, wine-guzzling “over it” energy that made her character in Catastrophe so effortlessly watchable.
Here, she plays a woman unwillingly thrust into a position of responsibility. As the wife of the current staff sergeant, she’s been tasked with organising the base’s communal gatherings. All the women know the knitting and coffee sessions are just temporary distractions from the bone-chilling fear that descends every time their spouses are sent away. Kate, the puritanical wife of the colonel, knows that pain all too well. Her son was killed in combat, which explains why she can’t help but meddle with Lisa’s plans for the choir. She’s a smashed china cup desperately trying to glue herself back together. The two clash over whether they should sing pop songs or hymns, whether they should practice scales or play around, and whether Lisa’s been too lax when it comes to disciplining her teen daughter (India Ria Amarteifio). Kate copes by keeping control, Lisa by relinquishing it.
And, though it’s obvious these two will work things out by the end, Military Wives doesn’t try to play down their struggles in order to keep things peppy. Cattaneo allows a feeling of anxiety to steadily thrum in the background. With a single phone call or a knock at the door, someone’s life could be turned upside down. When that giddy, sing-along ending eventually comes bounding around the corner, it feels deserved.