Every now and again, a British film pops-up that’s completely overrated by critics despite it being utterly dull. Whether it’s The Full Monty or Calendar Girls, these banal drama-comedies do quite well with mainstream Britain because apparently, the public loves seeing stereotypes being upheld in non-tasking, throwaway films. The idea of a one-dimensional, working-class group who undergo a very minor struggle whilst being generally content with their humdrum lives, is very appealing to middle Englanders; all it takes is for these folk to see people form a club and maybe learn a skill and all their troubles are washed away! These sorts of films are very “movie by numbers”, in fact there’s almost no skill involved in making these monotonous creations… a close-knit group of people pick something they’ve never done before, they do it badly at first, they have a lack of confidence, but after a rabble-rousing speech, they gain courage and finally perform their chosen skill (not professionally but adequately enough for amateurs) and the equally dull audience then cheer and sob into their popcorn as the credits roll… another hit! Military Wives is yet another film in this uninspiring vein, it’s very much The Full Monty meets Calendar Girls although the only dicks and tits on show are the characters themselves. Directed by The Full Monty‘s Peter Cattaneo, even the studio and producers couldn’t be bothered finding a director who’d possibly update this time-worn setup. The problem with recycling a hackneyed concept with a hack film-maker is that it feels stale decades after we’ve seen the first version, and on top of that, Military Wives possesses a very out-of-date, sexist concept.
Like the title suggests, this film is about the wives of the military. We’re introduced to the women of “Flitcroft Garrison” and during the opening we’re told that the two central characters (played by Sharon Horgan and Kristin Scott Thomas) are the Sergeant Major’s wife and the Colonel’s wife respectively. Because the women are merely “wives” (they’re not individuals and have no other characteristic) they have nothing to do but fret about their husbands who are deployed to a far-away war and this is a very mid-twentieth century filmic trope. A “military wife” is like a trophy wife or a rich businessman’s wife, or even a football W.A.G., in that they play second-fiddle to their spouse who is the skilled one in the relationship dynamic. These wives have no job (but being a mother is a full-time job!) and they therefore have to find other ways to fill their day, namely with mundane activities. After discussing “coffee mornings” and “book clubs”, the military wives decide to form a choir. This gaggle of “her indoors” then proceed to learn and perfect singing (I use the word “perfect” very loosely) as they work toward a performance in the Royal Albert Hall at the “Festival Of Remembrance” (which is broadcast on TV although I’ve never watched it). What a great idea for a film… not.
When I first heard the title, I immediately thought “Gareth Malone” and yes, as the credits roll we’re told that the original choir on which this film is based “led to the BBC TV series” and a Christmas No. 1 (another Yuletide ruined). The other thing that went through my mind was the fact that women can join the military so why promote such an archaic concept? If women feel so strongly about serving their country, why not sign-up, get their camo on and bugger off to whatever country we’re currently destroying? It’s 2020 for vagina’s sake, so why are some fannies still at home crying about their husbands? The most action these women see is when one of them asks for plasters for her chaffing nipples. This kind of criticism is pre-empted with a sarcastic line about “meek women” pining for their heroic husbands, but yes, that’s exactly what these characters are depicted as doing.
The sexism then extends to homophobia. All the women are moping around awaiting the return of some male soldiers but this is the “modern British army” (shout out to Bellamy’s People) so why not include some female soldiers too? Well writers Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard have thought of that… so they’ve included one woman and wait for it… she’s a lesbian! Her partner, a black woman in the choir, can’t sing (which I assume is intended to be stereotype-challenging) but because she’s also a lesbian, she can’t hit high notes because she’s not feminine enough! Don’t you know… lesbians are all butch? 🙄 Just goes to show that female writers can also be responsible for some very bigoted bullshit.
Regardless of the make-up (no pun intended) of the cast and the backdrop of a war, Military Wives never raises the audience’s pulse. The drama in regards to the deployed troops amounts to “the comms are out” but a few minutes later… they’re back on, oh wait, the comms are out again… my, what peril (not). We can also hear intermittent news reports of what’s happening in Afghanistan and these sound bites consist of “suicide bombers”, “insurgents”, and a “bomb near the base”. There’s no collateral damage, no oops we drone-striked a wedding party or gunned-down a random goat herder because the intelligence agencies are lacking in actual intelligence; it’s all very biased. Of course this film wouldn’t work if it wasn’t completely one-sided – it has to be boohoo hero troops – but even with the blinkered militarism and mawkishness in full effect, it still doesn’t work. The attempted light-hearted humour and dramatic conflict never comes across as engaging or interesting.
This film is described on IMDb as “a group of women on the home front form a choir and quickly find themselves at the center of a media sensation and global movement” but this is blowing the plot out of all proportion. A “home front” meant something during the World Wars because the civilian population helped (or more accurately were forced to help) in the war effort. But what do the family of service people do these days? Bugger all. Aside from the crap singing, we’re shown a wife and her children making a “chuffed chart” (a calendar charting her husband’s return when they’ll all be “chuffed” or happy) and another sending porn magazines to her beau (anything to stop him raping the natives I guess). There’s scenes involving the group singing in a cave and another in which they sing in a market but there’s no “media sensation” and the so-called “global movement” that’s created isn’t as big as the anti-war movement which formed just before our invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. In any case, this “movement” is relegated to a footnote just before the credits, this film is 113 minutes of cliched conviviality and woeful singing (even after they’ve “perfected” their choiring). This is a film that masks the truth about war. You don’t witness the butchering of Afghanis here but you do witness the butchering of The Human League, Yazoo, Tears For Fears, Sister Sledge and Cyndi Lauper. Seeing these prats singing “I got all my sisters with me” is almost vomit-inducing and seeing them “kill it at the Albert Hall” is ironic to say the least.
It’s not like we have conscription any more. If you’re fighting these days it’s you’re choice so why as an audience member should we feel some kind of regret or sorrow? Sharon Horgan’s character at the start of the film is angry at the idea of her husband dying (it’s an odd thing to marry a soldier and then be mad at him for doing his job) but later she encounters a harmless anti-war bloke handing out leaflets, and Horgan almost yells at him “We don’t have the privilege to be against the war, we’re married to it!”. Privilege? It’s a right you daft twat! Instead of being the wife of the government’s attack dog (which surely makes her a bitch) maybe have some gumption and make a stand against illegal wars. But nah, this is a film that wants you to think of the military as heroic and just. Piss off.
Military Wives is another “inspired by” real life film; there’s pictures just before the end credits showing the actual choir and as I predicted, they’re mainly Caucasian. So why make the main couple (played by Sharon Horgan and Robbie Gee) in this movie interracial? A right-wing, military choir who support illegal wars and perform for the corrupt BBC in reality are very white but via this piece of filmic propaganda there’s an interracial couple with a mixed-race daughter, another interracial lesbian couple, and there’s an Asian woman floating around in the background. So what do these lies accomplish? Well, in the future people will think it was all hunky dory in the army; it was racial harmony don’t you know? Interracial spouse and Afghan war hero Prince Harry never called anyone a “raghead” or a “Paki” and the military choirs were made up of rainbow children. In the same way that white supremacist Winston Churchill was shown embracing a black man in similarly overrated Darkest Hour, Military Wives changes history to benefit the bigots, assuaging history and subduing the truth.
As a minority, I’ve had first-hand experience of the kind of people who wear poppies and stick Help For Heroes bumper stickers on their cars; the stares you get, their jingoistic, xenophobic, and these days, Islamophobic points of view. This film is trying very hard to appeal to this section of society, and I’m glad to say that the cinema I frequented was almost 90% empty which may be indicative of the weather but hopefully evidence that people interested in this type of topic are the actual minority in this country. Of course after a national release, this may change.
Before the film began to roll, the cinema showed a couple of adverts. When the United Nations’ World Food Programme ad came on, most of the audience looked away because this little film showed what war is like outside of the blinkered and idealised world of film. Morons going to see this filmic shite couldn’t swallow the truth about their cosy army: cause and effect…
Then, when the Royal Navy advert came on, the audience’s ears pricked up and they began watching more intently. Then the BT ad came on and it showed an army veteran in one of the scenes. This kind of content appealed to the audience of Military Wives.
Back to the topic of the film, there’s the central group of six or seven actors who interact with each other and have all the lines, and then there’s the non-speakers on the peripheries of every scene who are seemingly still part of the choir but never interact with the leads. This is very noticeable and false-looking, it’s yet another element that makes this film an amateur-looking pile of trash. There’s also a few lines in which Horgan’s character says she doesn’t want to perform a “crass sentimental ballad” but after creating an original composition cobbled together from excerpts of letters they sent to their husbands, they create a sentimental ballad that’s not necessarily crass but crap.
The line “I always said you should be paid for what you do” (which is fuck all) is said to one of the military wives. The writers are basically suggesting that if a military wife stays at home fannying around singing ’80s songs and making wall charts, our tax money should be transferred to their account. I know this isn’t meant to be literal, but however you look at it (literal money or a worthwhile unpaid job) being the wife of the military is seen as one of the most important things a woman can do in this flick. Not only is that sexist but also militaristic.
The veiled militarism is very irksome. People won’t see this film in the same way as say Top Gun, but for all intents and purposes, Military Wives is here to promote the idea of faultless heroes (and a centrist and therefore inoffensive nuclear family – probably literally). Even the vicar at the funeral is seen wearing medals which means the writers, director, actors, and costume department didn’t see the irony of a murdering pastor and the commandment “thou shalt not kill”. The hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” is mentioned at one point and that’s how this film perceives the military – doing Britain’s, the government’s, the Queen’s, and God’s work – valiant and saintly and absolutely infallible.
You may be asking: is there any redeeming quality? Not really. The writing is very poor; like I said, it’s like the words and characters were inserted into a “UK drama-comedy” template. The direction is also drab, it’s the director of The Full Monty so that’s exactly what you get – another Full Monty with Sheffield steelworkers replaced by a group of ragtag British army wives. In terms of acting, Kristin Scott Thomas plays a stuck-up wife of a colonel. In real life her dad and step-dad were both Naval pilots so this role is not exactly a stretch. Her Naval heritage also explains why she said yes to this crap, she probably didn’t even read the script, she’s up for any piece of militarism (I’m with Miriam Margoyles in disliking her). Sharon Horgan has been declining in comedic quality as she’s gained popularity. This isn’t Psychobitches, this is more Catastrophe – bland overrated garbage for middle England. Amy James-Kelly at least shows flashes of actual acting but other than that, the cast seems to be in TV-mode. Laura Checkley from the shite King Gary seems to only have one character in her and she’s playing it once more. Robbie Gee is in a scene for a few seconds as is Jason Flemyng and they both give an unvarying performance that could be transposed to any of their televisual roles. In terms of tone and talent therefore, this is not something to watch at the cinema. On February 24th, the middle-aged, breakfast TV misery Lorraine Kelly will be interviewing the cast on the red carpet of the Leicester Square premiere, which will give the film a sense of daytime television triviality that it deserves.
The aforementioned Full Monty, Calendar Girls, and other films like Brassed Off and the upcoming Dream Horse, are all set in a rain-sodden landscape and this depressing scenery coupled with dull-arsed working class characters (who are oxymoronically miserable yet jolly – not contrived at all) are somehow supposed to bring a sense of joy to the audience. It doesn’t. Middle-aged women stuck in an army barrack in the late noughties mentioning Dido and Eminem is not my idea of fun, and I’d hate to meet the person for whom this is enjoyable.
When the film finishes, after a sigh of relief from the sane members of the audience, we’re told just before the end credits that the military wives’ motto is “stronger together”. This sums up the military wives but also the concept of the military: you can pretend that having a shared experience is meaningful and you can distract from the horrors of war with superficial things such as singing in a choir, having a bit of banter, or watching comedy films but it’s really a falsity. Gathering together and masking what war really means is idiotic and to only care about your own family, your own loved ones is ridiculous when your loved one is paid by the government to kill someone else’s loved one on the other side of the world. The only way this motto makes sense is if you apply it to the global population, not just widows of the army.
There’s nothing humorous and nothing particularly poignant here; Military Wives is an almost flat piece of cinema with no moments of distress or levity. At the time of writing this review, this utter garbage has an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes but as usual, that’s utter bollocks (for comparison, Jason Flemyng’s classic Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels has a 75%). Military Wives is dreary from start to finish, it’s like watching a shite ITV midweek drama. Watching it is a more depressing prospect than gatecrashing a Macmillan coffee morning wielding a copy of Terms Of Endearment.
W.A.G. The Dog.