Review: ‘Military Wives,’ starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan

May 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan in “Military Wives” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Military Wives”

Directed by Peter Cattaneo

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, the comedy/drama “Military Wives” has a predominantly white cast (with some black and Asian people) representing middle-class people in the United Kingdom’s military.

Culture Clash: Two very different military wives sometimes have conflicts with each other in how to lead a singing group of fellow military wives.

Culture Audience: “Military Wives” will appeal primarily to people who like British films or movies about “against all odds” groups who have to band together to achieve a certain goal.

Laura Elphinstone, Gaby French, Amy James-Kelly, Laura Rossi, Roxy Faridany, Sharon Horgan and Nadine Higgin in “Military Wives” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Military Wives” takes the serious drama of the Lifetime TV series “Army Wives,” mixes it with the 1992 comedy musical movie “Sister Act,” and comes up with a familiar yet crowd-pleasing blend of female-centric inspiration. “Military Wives”—directed Peter Cattaneo and written by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard—is based on a true story of a group of British military wives who form a singing group while their spouses are deployed during the war in Afghanistan.

The group’s story was also made into a 2011 BBC documentary miniseries titled “The Choir: Military Wives,” which featured choirmaster Gareth Malone leading a group of approximately 120 women (none who are professional singers) from RMB Chivenor military base in Devon to become good enough to perform at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The “Military Wives” feature film makes a feminist alteration to the story, by putting two military wives in charge of the choir. However, the movie falls into the predictable cliché of making the two women complete opposites, so that they will clash throughout most of the story.

The two women who are at odds in the film are Kate Barkley (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) and Lisa Lawson (played by Sharon Horgan), who are from Flitcroft Garrison (an Army base) in England. Kate is married to a colonel named Richard (played by Greg Wise), while Lisa is married to a sergeant major named Red (played by Robbie Gee). Kate is grieving over the death of her and her husband’s only child, a son named Jamie, who was killed in the Afghanistan war. Lisa is fretting over the rebellious streak of her teenage daughter Frankie (played by India Ria Amarteifio), who has taken to coming home very late, sometimes drunk.

At the beginning of the story, it’s clear that the differences in Kate’s and Lisa’s social classes affect how they see the world and how they fit in with the rest of the garrison. Richard’s recent transfer has made Kate and Richard fairly new to the area. Lisa works part-time as a cashier at the garrison’s convenience store. The first time that Kate and Lisa meet, Kate swans into the store and asks if the store has any olive oil. Lisa gives Kate an “are you kidding me” look and replies, “We have oil,” as she points to basic grocery-store oil. In turn, Lisa doesn’t look too pleased that she has to settle for this downmarket choice.

Kate’s tendency to be a control freak is also evident when she has a minor argument with her husband over a photo of Jamie that she keeps on their refrigerator. Richard would prefer to have the photo framed and hanging on a wall, while Kate insists that the photo stay on the refrigerator because she thinks having the picture in a frame would be too restrictive for this obviously sentimental photo. Kate has a neat and orderly home, while Lisa’s house is fairly messy.

What both women have in common is the constant worry over their husbands being deployed on another tour of duty in Afghanistan. And that moment comes fairly early on in the movie. It’s Richard’s fifth tour of duty, and there’s added tension because Jamie was killed during Richard’s previous tour of duty.

Kate is the “stiff upper lip” sort of military wife who doesn’t want to be seen as getting weak and overwhelmed by her emotions. By contrast, Lisa doesn’t hide her anger and frustration over her husband being deployed. Lisa is abrupt and standoffish when Red shows affection to her before he leaves for his tour. She blurts out, “I’m just getting ready for another six months as a single mother!” Red is able to smooth things over, but both spouses know that this issue in their marriage won’t be going away anytime soon.

Meanwhile, there’s an Army employee named Brigadier Groves (played by Colin Mace), who oversees the garrison’s Welfare Centre, which houses the social activities. He thinks it’s a good idea that Kate has volunteered to start some new activities for the military wives at the Welfare Centre, because he believes that it will help her heal during the grieving process of losing her son. Kate also has a secret addiction to ordering things that she doesn’t need from home-shopping television. It’s implied that she might have gotten addicted after Jamie died, as a way to cope with the loss.

Lisa has been the unofficial leader of the military wives’ social activities, which consists mainly of informal get-togethers where they get drunk. Kate has other ideas on what the group should be doing. In Kate’s first meeting with the other military wives (a group that varies in size, but totals about 20 to 30 people), her “take charge” personality is on display when she suggests activities that are a little too highbrow for this group, such as exploring international cuisine or forming a club to discuss arthouse films.

Although Kate occasionally acknowledges that Lisa has been the group’s leader and has known these women longer than Kate has, Kate also undermines Lisa’s authority by constantly interrupting Lisa and relegating her to taking notes on what Kate is saying. Kate is able to get away with this bossy attitude because Kate’s husband has the highest military ranking, compared to the rankings of the other women’s spouses. A suggestion to start a knitting club is quickly abandoned when some of the wives try to start the club and end up just getting drunk instead.

One of the better-received suggestions is to start a singing group, but Kate and Lisa can’t even agree on what should be the musical direction of the group. Kate wants the group to be called a choir and sing traditional Christian hymnals. Lisa wants the group to be called a singing group and sing secular pop songs. During the military wives’ first rehearsal to determine their singing abilities, Kate leads them in singing the Christian hymnal “Morning Has Broken.”

But the performance is such a disastrous mess that Lisa walks out and says she won’t be a part of the group. Lisa and Kate have a heated argument that takes place away from the other military wives. Kate convinces Lisa to stay in the group by telling Lisa that she knows that the wives respect Lisa more than they respect Kate and that the wives will follow Lisa’s lead. Kate adds, “You might not need the choir, but those women do.”

And wouldn’t you know, Lisa just happens to have an old portable keyboard that she gets out of storage and she brings with her to rehearsals. Kate and Lisa try to co-lead the group, but it’s clear that Kate sees herself as the one who’s really in charge. However, Lisa gets her way in having the group perform pop songs, when it becomes obvious that pop is the music genre that everyone except Kate prefers for the group, which is called the Flitcroft Choir.

Awkward rehearsal scenes then ensue of the group singing tunes (mostly retro pop hits), such as the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” Yazoo’s “Only You” and Tears for Fears’ “Shout.” The group members venture out to a farmers market to do their first singing performance together. And it’s another out-of-tune disaster, which elicits lukewarm applause from the sparse audience.

However, just like any group that finds its footing, the more that the group members rehearse together, the better they become. There’s a pivotal scene where the military wives are hiking during a social outing, and it starts raining, so they take shelter in a tunnel. They start singing “Only You,” and it’s the first time that their performance really gels and they feel that they might have something special as a group.

In a movie like this, it wouldn’t be a good idea to spread the focus among too many of the group members because it would just take too long and it might cause viewer confusion. Therefore, only three other members of the group (besides Kate and Lisa) are given more of a spotlight in the story than others.

Sarah Wheeler (played by Amy James-Kelly) is a nervous newlywed, married to a private who’s been recently deployed to Afghanistan. Jess (played by Gaby French) is the best singer in group, but she’s terrified of being a soloist. Ruby (played by Lara Rossi) is the worst singer of the group (and she happens to be a lesbian whose wife/domestic partner has also been deployed), so the movie has numerous gags and jokes about other people trying to avoid telling Ruby that she’s a tone-deaf singer.

One day, Brigadier Groves is giving a garrison tour to a high-ranking Army official, who overhears the Flitcroft Choir singing. The official was apparently so impressed, that the next thing you know, Brigadier Groves is telling the wives that the Flitcroft Choir has been invited to perform a song at the nationally televised Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Will they be ready in time? And what happens when Lisa suggests on short notice that their Royal Albert Hall performance should be of an original song, with the music written by Lisa and the lyrics written by the group? Those questions are answered in the last third of the film, which has a tragic plot development, a predictable “race against time” scene and more conflicts between Lisa and Kate.

All of the cast members of “Military Wives” are very good but not outstanding in their roles. (At this point in her career, Scott Thomas seems to be somewhat typecast in playing haughty or uptight characters.) There’s nothing particularly cinematic about “Military Wives,” because seeing it on a small screen would have the same intended impact as seeing it in a movie theater. It’s the type of movie that ultimately has an uplifting message of believing in yourself and giving support to those in need. It might not be an original theme for a story, and the film isn’t made in an innovative way, but only the most miserable cynics won’t feel good after seeing this movie.

Bleecker Street released “Military Wives” in the U.S. in select virtual cinemas, digital, VOD and Hulu on May 22, 2020. Lionsgate released “Military Wives” in the U.K. on May 6, 2020.