What do soldiers’ wives get up to when their husbands (or wives) are away on active service?
Never fear. “Military Wives” is not a News of the World-style exposé. It’s a heart-warming story based on real life events of how a group of women set out to tackle the loneliness, the tedium and, worst of all, the constant nagging fear of those months which are a recurrent feature of life for any woman married to a combat-ready serviceman (or servicewoman). One of their strongest dreads is hearing the term, ‘Comms down’; the shutting down of communications from their partners’ base, signaling either a secret mission in process or that their loved ones are under enemy attack.
The enduringly beautiful, Kristin Scott Thomas plays Kate, the colonel’s wife (the enduringly handsome, Greg Wise plays the colonel). With an upper lip stiffer than a starched collar and a ramrod-like spine, you might think Kate would be better employed leading the troops at the front than trying to organise and rally the other wives, but Kate has a hefty cross which she is struggling to bear.
When the regiment leaves for Afghanistan, we witness the range of styles of leave-taking. The colonel and his wife are models of emotional repression. One soldier hands his little boy a toy helmet, “This will keep you safe, just like mine will keep me safe.” Lisa (Sharon Horgan) wife of the newly-promoted Regimental Sergeant Major throws resentment and hostility at her husband. He understands. The scene is insightful and poignant.
Troops gone, Kate badgers Lisa into taking a ‘leadership role’ in shepherding the other wives to participate in various group activities. More laid back than the colonel’s wife, and fighting her own battles with a rebellious teenage daughter – Frankie (played with appropriate complexity by India Ria Amarteifio) – Lisa reluctantly agrees.
Kate and Lisa are chalk and cheese grater – the colonel’s wife all noblesse oblige, jolly hockey sticks with a hint of menace (she must have cracked some shins in her time); the RSM’s spouse very much a woman of the people. Despite pushing Lisa to take command, Kate can’t resist the urge to butt in and take over. Trouble, we are left in no doubt, lies ahead.
Much of the friction is caused by class differences and the presumptions of rank. As the commanding officer’s wife, Kate has kept herself apart from the other wives. She is prissy and judgemental and, unsurprisingly, isn’t invited to the women’s first team-building event: the Knitting Club. Turns out they’re better at boozing than knitting.
Finally, an idea is thrown up that both Lisa and Kate can go for – a choir (or, as Lisa prefers to call it, a ‘Singing Club’). Once again, the domineering Kate and the recalcitrant Lisa find themselves at odds, en route for loggerheads. Kate arrives, ready to conduct, and armed with sheet music for “Morning Has Broken”. More at home with Lisa’s taste in music, the gang slide into a rough-edged rendition of the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me, Baby?” No matter. It’s all about fun, right?
Caught in a rainstorm in the middle of a group hike (Kate’s idea, of course), the women spontaneously launch into a version of Yazoo’s (or perhaps The Flying Pickets’s) “Only You”. It’s beautiful – thanks in part to the discovery of the natural vocal gifts of Welsh woman, Jess (Gaby French). The Singing Club are about to become a genuine choir, and, before they know it, the ‘brass’ have recruited them for the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall.
Cue further clashes between Kate and Lisa. Nevertheless, there are signs the two women are beginning to understand and respect one another. Kate even shares with Lisa happy memories of her only son, killed in action: “That was his job on this earth – to keep people laughing.” This is the cross she is struggling to bear. Booze may not be Kate’s crutch, but TV shopping channels have her firmly hooked.
The day of the Festival draws nearer. Such an honour. Such a responsibility. But will they be ready?
News comes through from Afghanistan. Comms are down.
I imagine there’s been a bit of a race on the find the next “Calendar Girls” and “Military Wives” might well turn out to be just that. It has the same winning mix of gentle humour and genuine pathos (and the soundtrack is better than CG!). Scott Thomas and Horgan are perfectly cast as joint protagonists, and the supporting cast doesn’t let them down. I wouldn’t be surprised to see “Military Wives – the stage musical” before too long, and why not?★ ★ ★ ★
Military Wives is at Home, Manchester and cinemas nationwide from 6 March 2020.