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Military Wives

Today’s entry was brought forth by the Portland Revels, the Portland chapter of an international organization that started in Boston. While I can’t speak to any of the other chapters, Portland Revels is known throughout the city for finding songs, dances, and traditions from Ye Olden times, bringing them to vivid life for a modern audience. It’s terribly hard to describe in mere words without coming off as stuffy and boring, because the experience is anything but. Their massive Christmas Revels show is an annual institution here in Portland, and going to their show last year made me rediscover the joy and magic of Christmas like I hadn’t known since I was a boy.

Alas, like many theatre companies nationwide, Portland Revels was hit hard by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. Enter Bleecker Street, the enterprising studio that’s previously distributed a wide variety of recent sleeper hits. Of their catalogue, I particularly recommend Eye in the Sky, Leave No Trace, and The Man Who Invented Christmas. You might already be familiar with their biggest hits, Logan Lucky, Captain Fantastic, and Trumbo.

And in these hardened times, Bleecker Street very graciously launched their Community Cinema program, in which various clubs, charities, and non-profits are given their own unique hyperlink to a movie in the Bleecker Street catalogue. Half of all rental fees made through that hyperlink go to the group in question. It’s a fantastic way of supporting a fine local charity and reviewing a new movie. So what’s on the ticket?

Military Wives. An “inspired by true events” movie in which a bunch of soldiers go to Afghanistan and their wives form an amateur choir. Yes, that is on-brand for the Portland Revels, a company that thrives on elaborate choral sequences with extensive audience participation.

Taking a closer look, the poster says right up top, “From the Director of The Full Monty.” It’s never a good sign when the advertisers have to reach back over twenty freaking years to find a movie in the director’s filmography that audiences might recognize. And I have to question the wisdom of calling attention to the male director of this clearly female-driven movie, associating a film about a military wives’ choir with a film about an all-nude male revue.

Also, I looked it up: Director Peter Cattaneo has indeed done a whole lot of nothing since 1997. Unless you’re a huge fan of The Rocker or Opal Dream, his IMDB page is a sad, sorry sight.

At least the film was written by two women, so that’s got to count for something, right? Well, the two women in question have virtually zero produced written works between them. Rachel Tunnard came up through the ranks editing short films until she finally made her writing/directing feature debut in 2016 with Adult Life Skills. Critics seemed to like it, and we’ll have to take their word because nobody saw it. Roseann Flynn has it even worse — her only other feature screenwriting credit (2017’s The Labyrinth) doesn’t even have a BoxOfficeMojo page! And apparently she earned her stripes as a researcher/production assistant/hell if I know.

I’m not gonna lie, folks — my expectations for this one were rock-bottom. I’ve passed on films that had more to work with than this. But it’s for a good cause and I’m stuck indoors anyway. Also, it’s technically a new release, since it made the festival rounds last year before making its wide debut in Europe right when the pandemic hit. So fuck it, what have we got?

Right off the bat, the film wastes no time in letting us know that this will primarily be set in Britain. Little wonder, as at least two-thirds of the writing/directing team (I couldn’t find confirmation for Flynn) is British. Still, given America’s central role in the ongoing Afghanistan invasion, it might be easy to see the poster and hear the premise and assume this will be some jingoistic pro-America “support the troops” propaganda. That’s not even remotely what we’re getting here, so there’s one less thing to worry about.

(Side note: Kristin Scott Thomas leads the cast, and it turns out she’s a British native as well. I’d totally forgotten that.)

The premise is pretty simple. Britain is sending its troops off to a tour in the Middle East, which means six months of families and wives without their loved ones. (The filmmakers include a lesbian couple in the mix, so kudos for inclusivity.) So, to keep up morale and engender solidarity, a particular garrison of the British Army arranges for the soldiers’ wives to meet regularly on an informal basis. Traditionally, these activities are coordinated by the RSM’s wife — that would be Lisa (Sharon Horgan), whose husband just got promoted.

However, the colonel’s wife (that would be Kate, played by Scott Thomas) volunteers to come aboard in an advisory capacity. Speculation abounds that given her husband’s departure and her son’s recent death in overseas action, Kate may be looking for something to keep her occupied. Even so, given that the colonel’s wife isn’t typically a part of these gatherings, it becomes obvious very quickly that this isn’t her usual crowd. She’s used to formal upper-class entertainment while the rest of the wives are blue-collar women more interested in lowbrow escapism (read: getting drunk). Moreover, Kate is an old hand at deployment, married for two or three decades to a colonel with multiple tours under his belt, and she’s talking to the young wives of privates and sergeants.

Awkwardness ensues, as Kate tries to introduce new ideas while the rest of the wives stick to what they already know. Long story short, Sarah (Amy James-Kelly) suggests the idea of singing and we’re off to the races.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning another film about women trying to keep themselves and others entertained in time of war: A League of Their Own. Except that movie had the charm and comedy of Tom Hanks in his prime, the sex appeal of Madonna in her prime, the snark of Rosie O’Donnell in her prime, and the tenacity of Geena Davis in her prime. It also had the inherently competitive sport of baseball to provide some conflict, in addition to tension provided by the huge corporation that could shut the whole thing down at any time to protect their investment, not to mention the oppressive gender politics of the day and the constant sibling rivalry between Davis’ character and that of Lori Petty.

This movie has none of that. It doesn’t even have anything remotely comparable. So basically, take A League of Their Own, take out everything that made it good, and that’s this movie.

…Okay, maybe that’s not entirely fair.

The most obvious difference is this film’s focus on music, and that’s easily the movie’s strongest point. At its best, this is a movie about how different genres of music can mean different things to different people, yet it still has the incredible power to bring us together. Music can be fun, it can be personal, it can be bubblegum entertainment, it can be a profound artistic statement, it can be whatever emotional or creative outlet we need it to be.

That said, it’s also a story about a group of women with no previous musical training, and they’re learning how to form a choir. This naturally means they suck hard until they’re finally good, so I hope you think tone-deaf wailing and pitch-mute warbling are the height of comedy. (Hey, people liked Florence Foster Jenkins, so I guess there’s a market for that.)

More importantly, there’s the matter of how to introduce stakes into the plot, especially against the backdrop of the far more interesting story happening simultaneously in the Middle East. On a similar note, how are the filmmakers going to make us care about these characters? Yes, it’s inherently sympathetic that they’re alone and uncertain as to when or if their loved ones are coming back from war, but I’m sorry, that’s not enough to sustain a two-hour movie.

The obvious answer is to make this a story about how all these women will come together to function as a cohesive whole. This might have worked if any of the women had any serious differences or obstacles to overcome. But no, everyone wants them to succeed, and all the tools they need for success are readily available. The women themselves have merely superficial differences — more like quirks, really — completely and totally eclipsed by their shared position as military wives and their mutual need for this to work.

The best this movie has is the push/pull relationship between Kate and Lisa as the plot’s main thrust. Kate is the domineering workaholic who wants to keep everyone involved and distracted, while Lisa is more interested in keeping it casual and low-stress. Yes, Kate is right that the women need something to think about except Afghanistan, but Lisa may be right that giving these women more responsibility on top of that — whether they like it or not — may not be the answer either.

And again, there’s the class disparity that comes into play here. Kate wants to bring the other wives up to her level, but Lisa is actually on their level. Kate doesn’t know how to talk with them or work with them, not like Lisa does. The two of them need each other, so it’s a blessing the chemistry between Scott Thomas and Horgan is strong enough to carry the dynamic. It’s genuinely funny when they take the piss out of each other, and heartwarming when they lift each other up.

Which makes it all the more painfully, pathetically obvious when the relationship gets kneecapped and body-slammed to suit the needs of the plot. The most obvious example is that turn into the third act, when Kate and Lisa are at each other’s throats for no better reason than because we’ve got to cram a climax into this picture somehow. And of course it’s still not enough to fool anyone into thinking — even for a second — that all of this won’t result in the happiest of all possible endings.

And then of course we have the thematic angle. Kate goes on and on about distraction, repeatedly talking about how the wives need something to distract from their anxiety and sadness. But what if they don’t? Maybe sometimes it’s better to accept the pain and embrace it, especially if they’ve got friends to sympathize and share the pain with. And maybe sometimes, they just need to scream out their feelings through the inherently cathartic power of music.

And then of course we have Lisa’s line at the halfway point that ties it all together: “Maybe this choir isn’t about singing for ourselves. Maybe it’s for them being heard.” That’s about as deep and thoughtful as the dialogue ever gets.

I’ve seen paper airplanes more complex, inventive, and functional than this plot, and the characters are just as thin. There’s no tension, precious little creativity, and nobody behind the camera is even pretending to do more than the bare minimum. Yet the cast is full of charismatic actors who are all having a blast, and they’re trying so damned hard to sell the themes and ideas here. Plus, even if it’s a cheap and lazy tactic to play on our shared cultural love of music, the trick is undeniably effective. It’s certainly not a great movie and I’d argue it’s not even a good one, but it’s totally and completely harmless.

For better or worse, the pandemic was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to Military Wives. This movie was not built for the big screen, and it’s not worth a big screen ticket price. It sure as hell isn’t worth buying the DVD. This is a fluffy bit of cinematic comfort food to enjoy at home at your own pace, retreating from the unfolding apocalypse outside, and then promptly forget about. So, five bucks for a streaming rental sounds about right.

And if you’d rent it through this link — from this writing until June 25th, 2020 — so the Portland Revels can make a couple dollars, I’d take it as a personal favor.

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