Military Wives is the type of movie that provokes thoughts about the power of formula. Based on true events and directed by Peter Cattaneo, the Oscar nominated director of The Full Monty, the film tells the story of the wives of the British Army soldiers stationed at Flitcroft Garrison after their significant others are deployed for another tour in Afghanistan. Though a modern tale, the British military has some antiquated ideas about how the ladies must busy themselves to avoid worrying during this time. The responsibility of coordinating activities and marshalling the women typically falls on the wife of the enlisted man with the highest rank, Lisa (Sharon Horgan), the Master Sergeant’s wife in this case, but the colonel’s wife, Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas), is lonely, meticulous and in need of a project. Working class Lisa and upper class Kate jostle for control of the wives until they are brought together by a stroke of inspiration. With hard work and practice they turn the wives of Flitcroft Garrison into a world class choir.

The fascinating aspect of this film, written by Roseanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, is that absolutely nothing surprising occurs during its running time. The soldiers are packing to leave at the start and it’s easy to discern who is coming back. Talents among the singers emerge from the obvious places, as does the comic relief, and Lisa and Kate maintain their cold war until shots are fired at the worst possible time. The choir goes from ragtag to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall. There’s even a training montage after Lisa and her daughter Frankie (India Amarteifio) watch Rocky. You see it all coming yet the movie is still moving despite its by-the-numbers qualities.

A great deal of the credit goes to the interplay between Horgan and Thomas. Horgan, a standout in the 2018 film Game Night and writer of the HBO series “Divorce,” keeps Lisa close to boiling most of the time, the result of a life that hasn’t turned out as planned. She treats the choir with the same indifference she holds for most things, but it becomes a conduit to lost dreams when the group begins to take shape. An old notebook of song lyrics and a small Casio keyboard rescued from storage point to a life of different possibilities, but she is raw as is what she gets the choir to produce. She needs some refinement to offset her brashness. That’s where Kate comes in.

Thomas has been a known quantity since Four Weddings and a Funeral and her talent is exceptional. She has the ability to let an emotion pass across her face and quickly suppress it as she does often with Kate. The colonel’s wife looks after others more than herself, and Kate has been in so constant a state of compartmentalization that she has forgotten how to experience grief, frustration or joy. Everything must be in order as she keeps calm and carries on, making her the perfect counterpoint to Lisa. They are another in cinema history’s long line of odd couples that don’t know how badly they need each other until that fact is impossible to deny. You see it all coming but you can’t help but pine for that moment of recognition. No surprises. Just the power of formula.

This is a film designed to use the heartstrings like the coils of an upright bass and it succeeds. Underdog stories are dynamic because that’s the state-of-being for most of us but there was something abrasive about the low expectations thrust upon these characters by the fictionalized military. The contribution of support in terms of homemaking and childcare is barely recognized by general society much less the military subculture, so they are seen as delicate flowers with little to offer beyond those roles. That they achieve a moment of greatness through song only adds to the mystique. There’s an undeniable magic to music and the song these women sing at the film’s climax will cause your throat to clog and tears to well. In short, this is a movie that makes you feel the way It’s a Wonderful Life makes you feel once George Bailey raises a glass, but no one will remember Military Wives in 80 years. Formula may be powerful, but it is disposable in the end.

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