When it comes to films that are “inspired by” or “based on” an actual story, there’s a persistent battle between reviewing the film in front of me and the truth. It’s something which Darryl Mansel, The Cine-Men co-host, and I argue over constantly whether a film is required to be beholden to the facts in its recreation of events. A documentary, for instance, may have its biases, but a narrative is not trying to capture the truth, it’s trying to instill the essence of it. I get that, yet, there’s this strange betrayal to the truth upon finding out that much of what is present in Military Wives is created with the intent to honor the Flitcroft Military Wives Choir without actually presenting the events leading up to their 2011 performance at the Festival of Remembrance. Much of this could be forgiven if the film were successful in capturing our hearts, yet the entire film feels like something is missing, some piece that pulls it all together. Perhaps, what it needed, was a bit more truth.
As the soldiers stationed at Flitcroft military base in the UK prepare to begin a new tour in Afghanistan, their partners prepare for life without them. The wife of the newly promoted regional sergeant major, Lisa (Sharon Horgan), is not too keen on the social responsibilities she takes on with her husband’s promotion, while the wife of the colonel, Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas), is suffering from empty nest and is longing for something to do. These two women couldn’t be more different, yet their bond over the one thing they do share, the role of a soldier’s wife, helps create the perspective they need to pull the other wives together and give them something that offers a little agency: singing. Forming the first military wives choir, Lisa and Kate take their fellow wives-in-arms all the way to the Festival of Remembrance where their love and loss is put on full display for those just like them.
Directed by The Full Monty’s Peter Cattaneo, Military Wives does possess the kind of feel-good atmosphere you expect of a story that’s more internal struggle than external. Like with Monty, this is a story centered on a respective individual’s relationship with music, so there’re plenty of wonderful montages with the characters singing along. So be prepared to be belting tunes like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” joining the characters as they jump and dance to the numbers. Moments like these, along with some wonderful performances from a cast of relative unknowns, make Military Wives instantly relatable. We, the audience, can feel their excitement as they channel their own emotions through the music, finding some distraction, some peace, and, even a little independence from their almost constant psychological torture as they await word on their partners on tour. This is what Cattaneo and writers Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard capture beautifully: how a sense of community can be completely restorative in the face of opposition. Ultimately, Military Wives is a tale that’s about more than Lisa and Karen, it’s about presenting a side rarely seen in cinematic tales: what happens with the ones left behind.
This, however, is where Military Wives loses it steam. As wonderful a pairing as Horgan and Thomas are with their scenes together crackle with energy, they represent the kind of oil and water partnership audiences have seen countless times and their arcs hit about every expected beat they could get. Truly, the only real surprise comes from where their interpersonal conflict comes to a head, not in how its resolved, but how its executed. The majority of the film teases the individual issues that Lisa and Karen are contending with (and it’s impressive how the script attempts to make the issues of spousal distance, childcare, child loss, and coping prominent), yet it only uses this one scene to try to truly address them before all is well. I understand that this story comes from the country who famously created “Keep Calm and Carry On” in 1939 during the run-up to World War II, but the repression and inability to communicate is quite staggering. It make sense for Karen as the character is presented as traditional and mostly alone, an inference from her lack of socialization. That character was due for an explosion of emotion long before the climax. Rather, the surprise comes from Lisa who is presented as social, engaging, and more modern. Cultural norms being what they are, Lisa seems more inclined to up open about her issues with her friends, yet, once the story gets started, Lisa is shown more often on her own than in a group. This is, I think, where the issue of the truthfulness of the story comes into play.
As mentioned, there’s a certain amount of wiggle room a narrative “inspired by” anything has in order to tell its story. The audience allows for this as long as the essence of the story is present, because we understand when we buy our tickets to the show that drama, real or imagined, is a part of it. Except, with a bit of research, it was easy to discover that Lisa and Karen aren’t real. That, in fact, the first military choir was set up by Nicky Clarke and Caroline Jopp, who then got in touch with choirmaster Gareth Malone, none of which is remotely mentioned or included in the film. As compelling a story as Military Wives sets forward, there is something profoundly missing from the film as a whole and this may well be it. Not Clarke, Jopp, or Malone, but the fact that the real story has been altered in favor of something more average to give audiences comfort at the theater. For as great as Horgan and Thomas are, for as fantastic the supporting cast of women are (many of whom have more interesting stories than Lisa or Karen), there’s this persistent feeling that something is missing, some pull, some yearning to connect, to see the film through. Instead, the final film comes across as manufactured in the spirit of rallying the community, undercutting the real importance of what this real organization started.
Military Wives may not work for me, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve a watch. Emma Lowndes’s Annie is an absolute scene-stealer, Laura Checkley is hilarious as footballer Maz, Gaby French is not only a beautiful singer but she conveys the honest trepidation of suddenly being a performer. Frankly, Military Wives succeeds as it does because of the supporting cast more often than the leads. They are the true heart of the film, which is saying something considering the talent at the forefront. It’s not wise to consider what could’ve been when reviewing a film as one should only focus on what’s in front, but when what’s in front is absent of truth, one wishes that a chance was then taken to focus more on the group as a whole and leave the obvious leadership conflict out of it.
Available on VOD and Hulu beginning May 22nd, 2020.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.