Military Wives deserve a chorus of approval: BRIAN VINER reviews a new film telling the story of the legendary ensemble before the BBC got in on the act
Military Wives (12A)
This hugely engaging, enormously moving film tells the true story of the first Military Wives choir, the one that started even before choirmaster Gareth Malone and the BBC got in on the act.
It hits all the right notes, with Dame Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan perfectly cast as two Army wives who propel a rather motley group of women all the way to the Royal Albert Hall. I loved it.
The director is Peter Cattaneo, who made the 1997 smash hit The Full Monty, and Military Wives has much of the same charm, the same poignant side-stories, the same uplifting triumph, against the odds, of a seemingly ill-matched collective.
Tender: Dame Kristin Scott Thomas with on-screen husband Greg Wise
But what also makes this film such a delight is what it could have been – and isn’t.
It could have been irredeemably corny, cheesily sentimental. It could also have failed to overcome one obvious problem: Reality TV has turned these choirs into part of Britain’s cultural landscape, so a lightly fictionalised take on a story that has gripped us for real might feel superfluous.
It doesn’t. Instead, Military Wives feels rousingly relevant.
The credit for that goes to Cattaneo, and to screenwriters Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, who have done a really wonderful job.
As in all British feel-good pictures of this sort – think of the likes of Pride (2014) and Brassed Off (1996) as well as The Full Monty – the narrative cleaves to a pretty rigid set of formulae: Friction, adversity, growth, resolution. But never does it feel less than entirely authentic.
There are certain stock characters here that could almost be capitalised. The One Who Can’t Sing. The One Who Can Sing Beautifully But Is Too Shy. However, they are written and acted so nicely that they only enhance the story
For the audience, the film’s most conspicuous asset is Scott Thomas, always a compelling actress no matter what the role, but so good here that you can’t imagine anyone else giving flesh to her character. In choral terms, it’s an unsurpassable match of soloist and song.
She plays Kate, whose husband Richard (Greg Wise, also perfectly cast) is the colonel at a Yorkshire garrison.
The couple are mourning the recent death of their soldier son in Afghanistan, but with the stiffest of upper lips.
Military Wives might equally be titled Military Lives. Kate and Richard are Army lifers, processing the loss of their only child in the Army way.
As the film starts, the regiment is gearing up for another, six-month deployment in Afghanistan.
While the soldiers are away, Kate, partly as a means of keeping busy, has undertaken to engage and bond more with the wives.
She is a brisk, decent, well-meaning sort, typical of her class and type, but too bossy and buttoned-up to make much of a connection with the other women. There are subtle social nuances in this film worthy of a Jane Austen adaptation.
When the women decide to start a choir, Kate takes charge and tries to impose her own public-school rules. ‘Can we hear the Ts, please. Enunciate!’ she cries, as they perform the Tears For Fears song Shout.
Her hectoring tendencies inevitably bring her into conflict with Lisa (Horgan, also superb), wife of the newly promoted Regimental Sergeant Major. Lisa is quite controlling too, in her way, but much more in tune with the rest of the choir.
The two keep undermining each other but are moving towards a mutual understanding when their simmering antagonism boils over.
Of course, the hesitant progress of the choir towards the Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall, for which it has been recommended by visiting top brass, is not on its own enough to keep the story bowling along.
Personality clash: Sharon Horgan and Dame Kristin direct the motley crew of choristers
Kate has her grief to deal with, while Lisa is constantly at odds with her truculent teenage daughter, Frankie (India Ria Amarteifio).
Afghanistan, moreover, is distant in body but not mind. The perils of active duty are never far from anyone’s thoughts, and when news of a fatality duly arrives, the choir seems suddenly trivial. How they de-trivialise it is the emotional core of this stirring film.
There are certain stock characters here that could almost be capitalised. The One Who Can’t Sing. The One Who Can Sing Beautifully But Is Too Shy. However, they are written and acted so nicely that they only enhance the story.
From a fine supporting cast, former Coronation Street actress Amy James-Kelly deserves singling out for a notably moving performance.
Making a good film and forming a successful choir are not unalike. Everyone has to do their job impeccably. In Military Wives, everyone has. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Military Wives is released across the UK on March 6
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