You’ve Got a Friend in ‘Military Wives’

On an English army base, Kristin Scott Thomas leads a women’s choir.

One of the captions on the movie poster for Military Wives reads, “From the director of The Full Monty.” That tells you something about its cinematic DNA. Peter Cattaneo’s new film, made 22 years later, is part of the same genre of British films that he helped to popularize back in 1997. Set during a depressed economy, The Full Monty combines the woes of unemployed men with the awkward comedy built into the solution they come up with — becoming male strippers.  

The formula of these dramedies always begins with a group of villagers — in the broadest sense of the word “villagers” — as they bond and overcome challenges together, despite their differences. These stories are usually served up like Mary Berry’s recipe for a treacle tart. The main ingredient being 14 ounces of the sweetest golden syrup the director can find.  

Crowd-pleasing, sentimental and issue-driven, the genre targets the gooey, permeable spots in your retinae. When the filmmaker gets the magic right, as in Kinky Boots (2005), Made in Dagenham (2010) or Pride (2014), the results are memorable. In this vision of England, idiosyncratic characters might not fit into society at first but, by the end, their perceived defects are eventually celebrated. And they might just save the day! Their peculiarities, and their desire to do the right thing, unites rather than divides the small communities they live or work in. 

Like many of these films, Military Wives takes its raw material from a true story. In 2010, a group of British military wives started a choir on the base while their significant others were deployed to Afghanistan. At the center of Cattaneo’s film is, as he described it in a phone interview, a relationship that’s “chalk and cheese.” Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an officer’s wife and therefore at the top of the pecking order. She’s controlling and condescending. Kate’s also grieving the loss of her son who died in an earlier deployment. Lisa (Sharon Horgan) is down to earth and chummy with the other wives. Her major flaw is that she lacks Kate’s authority and her set of organizational skills.

Cattaneo believes it’s a great lockdown movie because it embodies the opposite of social distancing. The motto of the actual military wives’ choir is, “Stronger Together.” He says the story’s primary theme is “people working together for a common cause.” In their first few rehearsals, though, the women aren’t exactly in sync or harmonizing. 

“The imperfection [in the rehearsal scenes] does make the characters seem much more real,” the director explains. Cattaneo didn’t want the film to feel like a staged musical with expert singers. “It was their failings that appealed to me,” he says. “It makes you fall in love with the people. Because when you see that they are fallible, it makes you like them and identify with them.”

For anyone who’s been in the position of waiting for a loved one to return from combat, Military Wives should ring true. Male characters, like soldiers in real life, are mostly absent from the film. Cattaneo introduces them as the credits run, and then they’re gone. The wives live in that terrible space of wondering if they’ll get a knock on the door or a phone call with the worst possible news. The movie makes it clear why the women are singing: it’s not to entertain their partners when they return, but to distract themselves from the anxiety of not knowing if they’ll return. 

In his formative years, Cattaneo was inspired by Ken Loach films like Kes (1969) and by Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983). “They’re about real people, about the underdog.” Those are the kinds of stories he always wanted to tell.  

“When I met the people who’d started the first military choir in Catterick [a Yorkshire village], I talked to the military wives themselves about how much they’d floundered around without realizing how hard it was.” Cattaneo thought that it would be funny to see the choir struggling to get through the songs. But he also heard their heartfelt emotions about how important the choir sessions were to them. He wanted to capture the power of music and people singing together. “It felt like something I could really get my directing teeth into.”

 Military Wives is available on VOD and Hulu Friday, May 22.

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