In the late 1990s and early aughts, it seemed like the local arthouse theater always had at least one British comedy-drama playing, in which a plucky group of disparate characters band together for a common cause, whether starting a brass band (“Brassed Off!”), taking off their clothes (“Calendar Girls”) or, also taking off their clothes (“The Full Monty”).
Decades later, “The Full Monty” director Peter Cattaneo goes back to the well with “Military Wives." It’s a comedy-drama that has its heart in the right place but is a little light on both the comedy and the drama. It premieres Friday on video-on-demand as well as on Hulu.
The film is inspired, broadly, by the popularity of choirs started by the wives of British soldiers stationed all over the world — one of the choirs even had a hit single in the UK. “Military Wives,” written by Rosanne Finn and Rachel Tunnard, is a fictional story about the wives at a military base called Flitcroft, who stay on base while their spouses head to Afghanistan. They do their best to live normal lives, but you can see the anxiety flit across their faces whenever the phone rings or there’s a knock at the door.
Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas) is the de factor leader of the wives, a no-nonsense type who would probably be more suited at leading a platoon than her husband (Greg Wise), the base’s ranking officer. She clashes constantly with Lisa (Sharon Horgan of “Catastrophe”), who takes a more relaxed, slapdash approach to life. It’s Lisa who starts a knitting and wine club with the other wives, and the fact that none of them knows how to knit isn’t a problem.
Kate has the idea to start a women’s choir in the hopes that it will keep their minds occupied and less worried about their spouses. But Kate and Lisa’s leadership styles clash almost immediately; Kate wants the choir to practice scales in order to become the best singers they can, while Lisa wants them to have fun and sing 1980s pop hits. Reader, it will not surprise you to learn that they’re BOTH right.
The choir has the expected stock characters — there’s a shy woman with a terrific voice and a brash woman with a terrible voice. The actresses are all appealing, but there aren’t really any dramatic or emotional stakes. When they perform at Royal Albert Hall at the film’s climax, it feels like an inevitability rather than a major achievement.
Thomas is affecting as the team leader whose brisk “Let’s get cracking” domineering hides her grief at losing a son to war, while Horgan agreeably dulls down her lacerating “Catastrophe” wit to play a single mom with a snarly teenager to deal with. The screenplay isn’t afraid to tug at the heartstrings when things get a little slow; we know at some point, one of the wives will get that fateful knock at the door.
“Military Wives,” like the songs they sing, is certainly a pleasant way to pass the time. But you’re hard-pressed to remember much about what you’ve heard or seen an hour later.
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