“We don’t have the privilege to be against the war,” tuts a British wife to a peace activist. “We’re married to it.” Technically, she means married to an active-duty soldier, but as far as “Military Wives” director Peter Cattaneo is concerned, there’s little to distinguish the Afghanistan-sent men these left-to-fend-for-themselves ladies love from the machine that deploys them. When their spouses lose communication, each wife on the base gets an impersonal text at the same time, a chorus of pings and buzzes that simultaneously spook every house.
To distract themselves from negative thoughts, the anxious women form their own choir under the leadership of two officers’ wives, Lisa (Sharon Horgan of TV’s “Catastrophe”) and Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas), who jockey to decide whether they’ll sing pop songs or hymns. Lisa is the chillaxed mom of a binge-drinking teen girl (India Ria Amarteifio) who could learn to wield military discipline; Kate is all pearls and protocol, until she unleashes tension buying doodads on the home shopping channel. Their major fights all happen on tempo before the inevitable Big Show. Still, their lumpen, off-key, Cyndi Lauper-belting group activity gives them human connection — and gives the audience a tidy two-hour crowd-pleaser designed to squeeze out a few tears. Cattaneo, the director of the 1997 hit “The Full Monty,” could conduct this kind of charming, predictable entertainment with one hand while the theater hums along.
Cattaneo captures the banality of the women’s near-identical homes, all with walls painted the same godawful shade of beige, and the boredom that leads these housewives to continually open bottles of wine. Yet, each handles their six-month separation a little differently. Lisa boxes up her husband’s things as though he doesn’t exist, refusing to laugh when he models his kevlar underwear. Kate pretends everything is fine. Others create a countdown calendar for their kids, or cut-and-paste their own heads on softcore magazines they mail to Kabul. Initially, they suggest forming a club for needlework, knitting or baking, and seem mildly abashed to hew to homemaker stereotypes. (Only Lisa appears to have a job of sorts as the clerk of the base’s convenience store.) When Cattaneo drags them outside to perform in the local village, they’re so startled by skateboards and beeping trucks you’d think they’d been in solitary confinement.
“Military Wives” respects the sacrifices these women have made for a war no one in the film seems interested in justifying. More than 450 U.K. soldiers have died in Afghanistan, which means the audience anticipates one of the women getting that heartbreaking door knock. Mostly, however, the flick is out for laughs, and has stocked the choir with oddballs who each have a signature joke. Ruby (Lara Rossi) has a godawful caterwaul. Jess (Gaby French) is petrified with stage fright, and Annie (Emma Lowndes) is just plain weird. Amy James-Kelly as Sarah, the youngest of the clique who impulsively married her high school sweetheart, has great, big, teary eyes that she bats to get laughs and sniffles.
Screenwriters Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard wrote “Military Wives” to be a ballad to female unity. To do so, they had to change most of the facts. In real life, the choirmaster was neither Lisa nor Kate but a male reality show host who took on the project for a 2011 TV series called “The Choir: Military Wives.” As for the climatic song that Lisa pens in a montage strewn with scrap paper and pacing, that was written by the same male composer who penned Prince William and Princess Catherine’s wedding tune, which the real singers performed for Queen Elizabeth II. Scrappy underdogs, these aren’t.
But who cares about truth when Cattaneo has selected a hit-list of vintage karaoke classics from Dido to The Human League. “Don’t you want me, baby?” the ladies croon. Enough ticket-buyers will say yes.