There’s nothing in “Military Wives” you haven’t seen before, but these are times of comfort food, and this formulaic comedy-drama about a group of British army-base spouses who start a choir is so determined to be uplifting that your up may be lifted in spite of itself.
Set during the war in Afghanistan, the movie’s based on a true story and a true choir that (as the end credits inform us) has inspired over 70 other singing groups for soldiers’ wives (and husbands). The director is Peter Cattaneo, who made “The Full Monty” (1997) and who knows his way around heart-tugging comedies of eccentricity and pluck. If there’s a surprise, it’s in the casting of the lead roles: Kristin Scott Thomas, who tends to star in tougher, nervier fare, and Sharon Horgan, who’s a gutter-mouthed delight as the reluctant wife and mother of Amazon’s “Catastrophe.” Both women soften their edges for this project and appear to be having a pleasant time doing so.
The officers and enlisted men of Flitcroft base deploy for Afghanistan in the opening scenes of “Military Wives,” and because this is England, the war between the women left behind is one of class. Scott Thomas’s Kate is the toff, a colonel’s wife trying to stiff-upper-lip her way through her grief over the death of her son in battle. Horgan’s Lisa is the commoner, running the base PX and stuck with a stroppy teenager (India Amarteifio) at home. Lisa has been tapped to come up with activities for the spouses while the men are away, but Kate feels she should help, and by “help,” she means take over.
Kate wants formal dinners, movie nights devoted to cinematic auteurs, and no booze. Lisa knows the rank-and-file wives want to have fun, briefly forget their anxieties, and get a little squiffed. Someone suggests a knitting club, which is a wine-sozzled disaster. Then Sarah (Amy James-Kelly), the wife of a young soldier, raises the idea of a choir. Kate immediately thinks of stately hymns. Lisa starts belting out “Don’t You Want Me, Baby?” Guess who wins.
The script, by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, is written with empathy and an eye to the well-traveled road. Each of the choir singers has a miniature drama to resolve by the end. Lisa has her daughter to contend with and Kate all those messy emotions rattling around inside her well-groomed exterior. One of the women (Gaby French) has the voice of an angel and no confidence. Another (Lara Rossi) has the voice of a walrus and no shame. There are montages of the women improving over the course of many rehearsals and the base commander (Jason Flemyng) nodding benevolently as he listens from an adjoining office.
What there isn’t any of is politics. “Military Wives” does indicate the unpopularity of the war with an off-base outing and a brief encounter with a protest. (“We can’t afford to protest,” snaps Lisa, and that’s that.) The film’s attitude is that why their men are fighting is beside the point; they’re fighting, period, and until they come home, everyone is holding her breath. The script keeps to a minimum the dreaded but inevitable visits by men in uniform bearing bad tidings, knowing that too much tragedy will tilt the movie’s sense of reliance and harmonizing under the weight of duty.
“Military Wives” also puts off the unavoidable explosion between exasperating Kate and insecure Lisa until almost too late, forcing a mad dash to the choir’s climactic appearance at the Royal Albert Hall that asks a lot of a viewer’s suspension of disbelief. But the movie also knows how to bear down on the heartstrings, with a performance of an original song whose lyrics are made from passages of soldiers’ letters to their wives. Just as you’re beginning to accuse the filmmakers of fresh thinking, it all ends with a rousing rendition of “We Are Family.” You’ve heard it before and “Military Wives” is sure that most audiences will want to hear it again.
Directed by Peter Cattaneo. Written by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sharon Horgan. Available for rental on cable systems and streaming-video platforms. 112 minutes. PG-13 (some strong language, sexual references)