Set during the Afghanistan war, Military Wives tells the story of a choir that took the world by storm. When their spouses are redeployed, a group of women are left behind to wait. They live on a military base in rural England, cut off from everything – even the life of a nearby small town. The women don’t have an official role in the army. They don’t have the freedoms of civilians either. Caught in this in-between space, needing a distraction from worrying about their husbands and wives, the women decide to start a choir.
Kate (Kristen Scott-Thomas), the colonel’s wife, is the driving force behind the choir. Her son was killed in the last tour of duty, and she hides from grief by keeping busy non-stop. To begin with, Kate’s fussy song choices and controlling behavior put women off. But it is Lisa (Sharon Horgan), a skilled musician popular among the women, who convinces them to join the choir. Kate’s regimented approach is balanced out by Lisa’s sense of fun, and the choir quickly learns to make gorgeous music. It also becomes a space for women to connect and support each other through tough times.
Military Wives isn’t a documentary making the case for or against military intervention. It’s a drama about a community of women who band together and do something extraordinary. Military Wives is about friendship between women, and bravery they spark in each other.
It’s about the difficulties of raising a family alone, keeping a life going while your marriage is on hiatus, carrying grief from day to day. It’s about women who make the best of living in the constant, terrible suspense of knowing that – at any time – there could be a knock on your door announcing that you are no longer a wife, but a widow.
Although Military Wives neatly sidesteps the politics of war, it is not an apolitical film. After all, it’s a story of women finding a voice in a male-dominated space. And, between the women, there are differences. When we first meet her, Kate fills lonely evenings buying an endless string of gadgets she has no use for from a shopping channel. A quick look into the other homes on the base shows that very few other women have that kind of disposable income. After all, army recruitment stalls are more likely to be found in the center of a town with high rates of child poverty and unemployment than in any leafy suburb.
To begin with, Kate looks down on Laura and the other wives. She’s snobby about them drinking together, being football (soccer) mad. And while friendship overturns these prejudices, there is a very ugly moment when Kate’s bigotry jumps out. She suggests that Frankie – Laura’s Black daughter – walks the streets at night giving out handjobs to boys, and will end up pregnant sooner rather than later. Kate apologizes for the terrible things she said in anger. But she never owns up to her racism or classism.
This isn’t the only frustrating part of the film. Ruby (Lara Rossi), a hairdresser whose wife serves in the army, plays a vital role in the choir. While she’s not the best singer, Ruby is often the glue that holds the group together. And she makes herself heard.
The Black half of an interracial lesbian couple, Ruby is not the stereotypical military wife. But – beyond one outburst that some of the choir are waiting for wives as well as husbands – Ruby’s story remains largely in the background. Her experience as a Black lesbian in a very white and straight community is underexplored. As a result, lesbian representation in Military Wives feels a bit tokenistic.
Military Wives acknowledges differences of race, class, and sexuality. But its inability to deal with these themes in a satisfying way is film’s main shortcoming. Still, it’s a deeply moving film. Watching the characters grow, as individuals and as a group, is an incredible experience. You can’t watch Military Wives without rooting for them. And you shouldn’t watch it without a box of tissues close by.
The plot is made all the more poignant because it was based on real life. Since the first Military Wives Choir performed at the Royal Albert Hall, they have become a charity. There are now 75 choirs in British military bases across the UK and overseas. And this film celebrates the story of how they came to be.