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maryann johanson | takeaway only

Military Wives movie review: tired choir dramedy needs to change the tune

Military Wives yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

So aggressively precisely what you think it is that there’s almost no point in seeing it. Flattens a true story into generic pap that isn’t even that successfully, authentically feel-good, either.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women; love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

A minor lesson in two nations separated by a common language.* There’s a phrase used here in the UK — one that was apparently first an advertising slogan, as so many of our modern colloquialisms are — and it goes like this: “Does what it says on the tin.” (Tin as in “the can it comes in.”)

Now, this phrase is useful in many scenarios and in many environments, and all of those usages imply a sort of exasperation with any expectations that go beyond the mere utilitarian, and a resigned acceptance to baseline functionality. Like, “What do you expect from washing-up liquid [American translation: dish soap]? It’s not supposed to be sexy or exciting. It just gets the crockery [American translation: dishes] clean.” British film critics use this phrase with an alarming, lazy alacrity: “This Nicolas Cage movie does what it says on the tin.” Translation: “You’re a fool if you thought you were getting anything more than a scenery-chewing fevered rampage out of it.”

Military Wives Kristin Scott Thomas Sharon Horgan

“All right, I heard that! Which one of you just called me a drill sergeant?”

I hate this attitude, and this way of talking about movies, because I don’t think movies should be considered akin washing-up liquid. Movies, even those intended as pure, comfortable escapism, are not practical household products. Especially now, with movies so ubiquitous, so easy to access, and with so damn many of them demanding our attention. They should want to — they need to — rise above the level of minimal mediocrity if they want to be seen. But here we are.

All this is in aid of saying: I have never felt more moved to describe a movie with “does what it says on the tin” — albeit with a sigh of despair — than I have with Military Wives, a movie that is so aggressively, so uninspiringly precisely what you think it is going to be that there’s almost no point in even seeing it, because you can see it in your head without even trying. It is the functional equivalent of washing-up liquid for your brain. Someday when it eventually ends up on Netflix or Amazon Prime, it will be perfectly fine for wiping away the week on a Friday night with your gal pal and a bottle of wine. (I’m just going to go ahead and presume that many men — not all; don’t #NotAllMen me — who like “does what it says on the tin” movies won’t have any interest in this one. But that’s a whole ’nother rant.) Apparently the reason that film trailers give away so much of movies’ stories these days is that people actually like that: they want to know exactly what they’re going to get out of a movie before they see it.

I am not like this. I want to be surprised. I am a weirdo, I know. Your mileage may vary, but I prefer at least a little something surprising out of a story. And if a movie cannot manage that, it sure as hell had better be absolutely extraordinary in telling a same-old story. (Stay tuned: I will be talking about another British “does what it says on the tin” movie soon, and it’s so much better than this one. So that’s possible…)

Military Wives

There is in fact some singing in rain in this movie…

Which isn’t to denigrate the real story Military Wives is based on. Choirs made up of military wives are a real thing in the British armed-forces milieu, women getting together to sing in harmony as a way to distract themselves from worrying about their husbands while they’re off at war. I cannot even imagine how stressful that must be, and how great it must feel to be part of an endeavor that lets you forget your stress and anxiety for a while.

But here’s the problem: I kind of still can’t really imagine that. Because Military Wives — written by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard — flattens out the fictionalized experiences of the real women who started the real first military-wives choir, 10 years ago, into bland, generic, feel-good(TM) pap… and it’s not even that successfully, authentically feel-good, either. Was it really a flinty, stuck-up wife of an officer like Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas: Tomb Raider, Darkest Hour) and the snarky, down-to-earth water-to-Kate’s-oil Lisa (Sharon Horgan: Game Night, Man Up) who butted heads along the way to getting a disparate group of women together to sing their hearts out as a way to express their otherwise inexpressible pain at separation from their husbands (and, in one case, wife)? That seems impossibly reductive. Women are more complicated than this. The situation is more complicated than this. Life is more complicated than this. And when it’s not that complicated — as when one of the women in the choir loses her husband in Afghanistan — well, Wives isn’t up to the task of connecting us to that. We’d never even met the guy, fer pete’s sake…

Military Wives Kristin Scott Thomas Sharon Horgan

More singing…

I absolutely adore Scott Thomas and Horgan, and what small pleasures I myself found in this pedestrian movie are down to them. Even if the movie cannot do more than slot them into typecast stereotypes… and it doesn’t even do that well. Somehow, Wives has deflated what I would have thought was Horgan’s irrepressible — and thoroughly delightful — pragmatic crankiness. (If you haven’t seen Catastrophe, her TV series from Britain’s Channel 4, which she costars in and cowrites with Rob Delaney, you need to remedy that now.) It doesn’t give room for Scott Thomas to show us much of the genuine emotion that of course is roiling under Kate’s icy shell.

Have you heard that this is from the director of The Full Monty (that’s Peter Cattaneo)? Everyone wants you to know this, in the hope that some of the love for that terrific movie will transfer over to this one. This is a similar tale of ordinary people coming together to do something unexpected to boost their spirits. (Monty is not based on a true story, though it feels like it could be.) But we’ve seen so many movies like this since the wild success of 1997’s Monty helped kick off this dramedy subgenre. We’re so full up on the clichés that I suspect that Monty wouldn’t feel very fresh anymore. (I haven’t seen it in ages… maybe not since it was new, and one of the very first films I wrote about here at FlickFilosopher.com.) And Military Wives never overcomes the baggage of fulfilling the expectations of this sort of movie to be anything more than enjoyable in mildest, least complicated of ways.

*As an American abroad in London for more than nine years now, and as a writer and someone who delights in language and wordplay and culture, I am always gratified to still find some differences between British and American English, and that some Britishisms still survive even as American usages take over, thanks to the global dominance of American entertainment and culture, and especially thanks to the Internet.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2020’s other theatrical releases.



yellow light 2.5 stars

Military Wives (2020) | directed by Peter Cattaneo
US/Can release: TBA
UK/Ire release: Mar 06 2020

MPAA: rated PG-13 for some strong language and sexual references
BBFC: rated 12A (infrequent strong language, moderate sex references)

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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