Producers: Rory Aitken, Ben Pugh and Piers Tempest Director: Peter Cattaneo Screenplay: Rachel Tunnard and Rosanne Flynne Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sharon Horgan, Greg Wise, Jason Flemyng, Emma Lowndes, Gaby French, Lara Rossi, Amy James-Kelly, India Ria Amartelfio, Laura Checkley, Sophie Dix and Beverly Longhurst Distributor: Bleecker Street
Peter Cattaneo scored his biggest success more than twenty years ago with his first film, “The Full Monty”—a loosely fact-based, crowd pleasing musical comedy-drama that, with its theme of economic dislocation, spoke to the temper of its time. After years trying unsuccessfully to recapture its magic—most recently with the dreary Rainn Willson vehicle “The Rocker” back in 2008—he’s done a classic Alfred Hitchcock “run for cover” and chosen a story that’s basically a distaff variant of “Monty,” though with a contemporary twist and minus the naughtiness. “Military Wives” is an innocuous enough blend of humor and schmaltz, but hardly the equal of Cattaneo’s signature hit from 1997.
The background reality here is the family disruption caused by British soldiers being sent off to serve in Afghanistan. In 2009 two women at a garrison in Yorkshire had the idea of forming a choir to provide emotional support for those whose husbands and boyfriends and colleagues had been deployed, and the group proved a great success, ultimately performing in a program at Royal Albert Hall in 2011 and releasing several CDs. Moreover the program developed into a registered charity, expanding until now more than seventy such choirs exist at military bases throughout the UK.
The script fashioned by Rachel Tunnard and Rosanne Flynne about this worthy phenomenon is hardly a documentary. It uses the story of the first choir’s beginnings as the springboard for a formulaic tale of a rivalry that leads to unexpected fame and ultimate triumph. Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas) is the high-minded, refined wife of the ranking officer, Richard (Greg Wise). They already lost their son Jamie in the Afghan conflict, and she’s still grieving (she sometimes goes and sits in the boy’s junker of a car, sappily called Dave).
But Kate generally keeps a stiff upper lip between sniffles, and responds when tasked with finding joint activities that will bring the women on the base together and give them a sense of camaraderie while the men are away. When it’s suggested that a choir might be a fine idea, she and Lisa (Susan Horgan), the more down-to-earth proprietress of the local store who’s struggling to keep her rebellious teen daughter Frankie (India Ria Amarteifio) in line, vie for leadership of the group. Kate favors old-fashioned hymns, Lisa pop tunes.
Their competition, which of course eventually develops into a grudging friendship, provides the underling arc of the narrative, but there is plenty of room for numerous predictable riffs involving other choir members. There are, for instance, Ruby (Lara Rossi), who can’t carry a tune but still has something to give, and Jess (Gaby French), whose ringing soprano is initially silenced by stage fright but who finally escapes her shell. (She’ll certainly remind you of unlikely women who came out of nowhere to win popular acclaim.) You can probably fill in the blanks for the other stereotypes on hand. To balance the chuckles, there’s newlywed Sarah (Amy James-Kelly), who invites tears when she worries—not without cause—about her husband.
Sarah’s story is part of the obligatory row between Kate and Lisa that threatens the choir’s Albert Hall appearance. Suffice it to say that while the war brings pain, the women overcome the obstacles and demonstrate the collaborative moxie they developed over time rehearsing numbers like “Time After Time” and even—yes—“We Are Family.”
“Military Wives” bears only the most passing resemblance to the true story of the actual choir on which the script is based, down to the way Kate makes her way hurriedly to the big concert (the symbolism of her mode of transport is heavy, indeed) and the process through which the song they sing in that triumphant debut is composed.
But so long as you don’t mind that the tale told here is basically a bit of cinematic hokum constructed out of a screenwriter’s handbook, you might enjoy its mixture of laughter, tears, and upbeat music. The cast is certainly a good one, with Scott Thomas bringing her air of authority to Kate and Horgan proving an able partner to her; the supporting cast is capable across the board. So are the behind-the-camera crew, headed by production designer John Beard, cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski and editors Anne Sopel and Lesley Walker.
Cattaneo’s unlikely to match the popularity of “The Full Monty” with this like-minded crowd pleaser, but undemanding viewers will find it a pleasant enough time-waster.