Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Bleecker Street releases the film to VOD on Friday, May 22.
A nice enough time that never really aspires to be anything more, “Military Wives” isn’t just the kind of movie that ends with Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” it’s the kind of movie that ends with the entire cast singing along. Steered right down the middle by “Full Monty” director Peter Cattaneo (who could make this sort of feel-good fluff with his knickers around his ankles, and shoots it with such basic instincts that you’d almost believe he actually did), this semi-factual charmer tells the true enough story of some British army spouses who learn to sing through their sorrows.
Kristin Scott Thomas belts out Yaz, Sharon Horgan lectures her about blowjobs, and it all ends with an unfussy but satisfying public concert that tugs on your heartstrings and ties the whole film together. Cattaneo’s tone is too flat (and sobering) for this to become a genuine crowd-pleaser, and Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard’s script is too buoyantly functional for it to seriously reckon with the subject at hand, but “Military Wives” hits enough right notes along the way to make up for its overall lack of harmony.
The ever-reliable Thomas plays Kate, the colonel’s wife, which effectively makes her the “highest-ranking” civilian on the sleepy military base where she’s busied herself as the Social Committee chair since the start of the War in Afghanistan. It’s not the most enviable life. Most of Kate’s tasks involve finding things for the other women to do — book clubs, knitting circles, and whatever other activities might help them take their minds off the fact that their husbands and wives might never come home.
Kate’s severity makes her a natural fit for the job (even if her cold demeanor has a chilling effect on base morale), but her real motivation comes from a sadder and more self-serving place: Not only is Kate a military wife, but she’s also a military mother, and her only son died in combat not too long ago. And when all of the local soldiers ship out for their most dangerous deployment yet, Kate is left with nothing but an empty house and a neighborhood full of women who are vaguely terrified of her.
The most different and outspoken of those women is Lisa, who Horgan plays with the same unvarnished, world-weary, irresistibly self-possessed grace that she brought to all four seasons of “Catastrophe.” Whereas Kate is all about that stiff upper lip kind of life, Lisa isn’t convinced that everyone can just keep calm and carry on. On the contrary, she’s more of a panic and chug wine type; she thinks the wives need to blow off some steam, let loose, and lean on each other. When the women on the base are goaded into starting a weekly choir group, Kate tries to lead them in some musty hymns, while Lisa tries to nudge her towards Cyndi Lauper. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before they all start making beautiful music together.
Beyond its cast, who never miss a beat, the best thing that “Military Wives” has going for it is the film’s unique sense of place. The drama seldom rises above a (very) low boil, and Lorne Balfe’s bouncy score is there to keep your mind from wandering to some darker places, but Cattaneo manages to make the base feel like a purgatory without things getting too unpleasant. While the script is selective with its tragedy — you know that at least one of the wives is going to be widowed, but her loss is a bridge and not a chorus — it’s clear that every phone call or knock on the door feels to these women like a portent of doom.
Their children make elaborate calendars that count down the days until the deployment is over; the houses are filled with blank walls because no one is comfortable enough to settle down; routine objects are endowed with superstition. Some of the supporting characters are defined by a sole trait (e.g the shy Welsh girl with a beautiful timbre, the tone-deaf lesbian who carries a baritone), while the rest are lucky to have a single line of dialogue, but they’re just distinct enough to sell a finale that relies on their individual struggles.
“Military Wives” is awful light on genuine laughs, and sometimes even strains for a smile, but the tension between Thomas and Horgan is enough to get things going, and the reasonably organic way that tension thaws is enough to take things home (the inevitable third act scene where the gloves come off hits much harder than you might expect). It’s touching to see the little fissures of vulnerability that crinkle into Thomas’ performance, and Horgan has a wonderfully exasperated way of letting single parent stress pollute her more casual way of doing things. If the film doesn’t really sell the idea of these women discovering a new sense of self-identity — a purpose that’s separate from their partners — it’s because Kate and Lisa seem fully formed from the moment we meet them. What joy there is to be found in “Military Wives” comes less from self-discovery than friendship, as these women learn to hear how much stronger they are together.
“Military Wives” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Bleecker Street films will distribute it in the United States.