British cinema literally releases dozens of films exactly like Military Wives every single year. There is no reason to actively seek it out.
Note: an abridged version of this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to a screener disc provided by the film’s UK distributor, Lionsgate Home Entertainment.
Hi, there, friends! Welcome back to “Cooking with Callie!” Today, I’m going to teach you how to make your very own Military Wives! To a non-professional, it may seem a daunting prospect to replicate for oneself. But follow these six easy steps and you too can put together a relentlessly passable and deeply uninteresting mainstream British dramedy that’s somehow cinema-worthy with no hassle at all!
Step One: find yourself a ‘feel-good’ true story.
Obviously, you need said true story to be British in origin, but more crucially it needs to epitomise what middle-class middle-aged white non-city British folks believe ‘traditional British values’ entail. Stiff upper-lips, keeping calm and carrying on, an often-unspoken and unquestioned patriotism towards the nation’s imperialist values, a reverence for older British history and culture, things like that. If possible, you’re gonna want to make sure there’s an element of culture clash sensibilities running in the undercurrent, often with a minor disdain or confused exasperation for liberalism and youth culture and big city folk that can be used to quietly dog-whistle to the audience. An underdog story is an absolute must, however, and you should also be sure to find some legitimately interesting or resonant cultural subtext that makes the sell sound interesting. Don’t worry, you won’t actually have to follow through on that subtext later.
For our basis, we’re going to be using the formation of the Military Wives choir network, originally an idea by two Scots Guards wives as a way to give their fellow women a distraction and support group for when their significant others were deployed overseas. If that doesn’t work for you, though, you can plug in a choir of Cornish fisherman, a British-Pakistani writer who loves Bruce Springsteen, middle-aged Yorkshire women putting together a nude calendar, or an Australian female jockey, if you want a slightly more international flavour, and you’ll get much the same results.
Step Two: grind that ‘feel-good’ true story down into an amorphous paste until it can fit neatly into the Generic Brit Dramedy cutter.
Pull up your ‘feel-good’ true story and uncork a big thick black marker pen. Go through that story and every single time you find a unique detail, some semblance of depth, or especially anything at all which could complicate or bring the mood down significantly, black it out with your marker. All of it, especially the nuance. Nuance and depth are the absolute antithesis of what we want here, they risk puncturing the anodyne bubble of unthreatening passivity the meal is supposed to provide.
If your story involves a group, streamline like crazy. Rework your story so that it’s predominately about two leads who are the total opposites of one another and butt heads like crazy until they suddenly develop a camaraderie by the third act, all for no apparent reason. Here, those’ll be the uptight high-cultured controlling Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas) and the more working-class less-disciplined but also kinda-high-strung Lisa (Sharon Horgan) who envision and then lead the choir. Even though they’ll still swing hard into unconvincing caricature every third scene or so, these shall be the only members of your cast to receive something approximating depth and potentially interesting character touches – for example, Kate has a compulsive home shopping addiction as a failing distraction for the loss of her son to the war – but don’t feel like you need to do anything meaningful or exploratory with these touches. You’re making a broad flat dramedy, this stuff is just window-dressing.
As for your supporting cast, populate them like you would the background characters of a rejected ITV sitcom. Single one of them out as the designated Person Whom Bad Stuff Happens To in order to create the illusion of there being actual stakes and a few obligatory though not-wholly-ineffective weepy bits prior to the third act, but the rest you can resort to base schtick. Make one of them really into footy, one of them a lesbian who keeps mentioning she’s a lesbian and also ‘comically’ can’t sing, one of them a straw-woman stand-in for every parent’s fears about when their child becomes a teenager, one of them the designated Good Singer. Go BROAD. They should be the equivalent of the person on Facebook who thinks that only talking about getting married soon is the same thing as having a personality. When you run out of stereotypical traits, just make the rest anonymous background extras.
Most importantly, never get too heavy. You might think that a story about the resiliency and day-to-day emotional turmoil experienced by significant others of front-line soldiers, a few of whom have lost or end up losing loved ones by the time the story closes, shouldn’t shy away from the unfortunate psychological realities of the situation despite their being anathema to the narrative equivalent of a discount Victoria sponge cake. Truthfully, you’re correct in that assessment which is why you should steer away from that shit as hard and as often as possible. Keep your characters surface-level, immediately chase every specifically-marked ‘tear-jerking’ scene with a bad joke or an ‘uplifting’ moment of bonding, never ever wallow or acknowledge emotional complexity. Doing so risks alienating your audience and spoiling the broth. They’re here for pandering and zero-calorie comfort, not interesting storytelling.
Oh, I almost forgot about the comedy portion! You’ll be forgiven for that too, in fairness, since crafting actual jokes is the least important aspect of the meal we’re cooking today. Go ultra-basic. Have characters talk over each other after one of them said they wouldn’t, make one of them a posh square oblivious to how much of a posh square they are, lean on the alleged wackiness of your premise where [x group/person] you wouldn’t expect to do [y activity] is in fact doing [y activity], or just have someone do some ‘comically’ bad singing. If it would kill as the between-game entertainment for a room of retirees on a seaside hotel’s bingo night, you’ll still need to wind it in just a bit more.
Step three: have the director sleepwalk through the construction of your warmed-over meal.
Now that you’ve sanded down the edges of your starting story into the least-threatening and interesting version imaginable, you’re going to want your director, here being Peter Cattaneo, to realise that vision with all the passion and care of Paul Rudd cleaning up after breakfast. Block and shoot scenes in the most boring and obvious manners available. Have 90% of them take place on a single plane, often entirely static in movement and life, so that the effect is mildly stifling for more active viewers but washes over your passive target audience. Make sure the sole stylistic touch is, bewilderingly, to lift wholesale Tom Hooper’s shaky dead-centre extreme-close-up shooting technique for musical numbers; ostensibly to designate and better display an actor’s emotion but, in reality, is just distracting and makes one want the flat lifeless shooting back. Turn up that high-key lighting. Higher than that. HIGHER than that. HIGHER, DAMMIT! Turn it up so high that it makes every single window look like it’s being blasted by airstrip fog lights.
If they’ve managed to make a barren rec centre on a military garrison and the goddamned Royal Albert Hall look equally as empty, grey and cheap as one another, congratulations, you’ve hit the mark!
Step four: goose audience responses by having one actually pretty decent performance.
Now, this is the tricky part because you need the balance to be just right. There can’t be any outright bad performances, because then your meal will end up actively bad and those who partake in it will feel like you’re insulting their intelligence. But you can’t have more than two properly good performances, otherwise then you’ll have made a genuinely decent meal when you’re instead trying to make the physical embodiment of time-diverting beige. Just one fully good performance. In this case, that’ll be the always delightful Sharon Horgan wasting her reserves of comedic and dramatic talent trying to cohere her half-realised sketch of a person into a compelling screen presence through sheer force of charisma. Kristin Scott Thomas can get halfway there but be ultimately let down by a strange comic wavelength not compatible with the dish. The rest of your cast should be made up of relative newcomers so devoid of impression they could be swapped out for your local university’s second-year drama club and get about the same results; not bad, not great, just there. Bonus points if you can score another one or two name actors, in this case Jason Flemyng and Greg Wise, then have them loll around in the background contributing absolutely nothing of value.
Step five: heat for almost two hours.
There’s no reason for the cooking time to be almost two bloody hours, but that’s how long these things usually are so that’s how long this one is too, I guess.
Step six: serve!
Et voila! Your very own Military Wives! An inoffensive, unremarkable, uninteresting timewaster done literally dozens of times every year under different names with nothing unique or exemplary enough to make it stand out!
If that all sounds too complex or time-consuming to create from scratch, though, then just re-heat some Full Monty leftovers (specifically the bits lacking any of the edge or emotional truth that meal started with) for the same amount of time and you’ll get exactly the same results. What was great 23 years ago is certainly edible enough today, I always say!