By Mary Sollosi
May 22, 2020 at 05:57 PM EDT
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Films don't exist in a vacuum; none can ever be divorced from the moment in which they were released. Military Wives (out now on VOD) debuted in Toronto last year under very different circumstances than the present ones, and while it would be rather cynical and crass to say the film benefits from coming out amid the global crisis in which we now find ourselves — and Military Wives is not a cynical or crass movie — there's no denying that, for anyone who might see it, this is the moment in which it works best.

Loosely inspired by true events (as chronicled in the docuseries The Choir), Peter Cattaneo's feel-good movie follows a group of British women on the home front whose spouses are serving in Afghanistan. When Lisa (Sharon Horgan) is assigned (and is "none too chuffed" about it) to coordinate events and activities for the wives while they await their partners' return, high-strung Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas), the colonel's wife who lost her adult son on a previous tour, offers to help. The ladies, mismatched as they prove to be, decide to form a choir.

It's all quite obvious: They clash every step of the way, but the singers improve enough to be invited to perform in the annual high-profile Remembrance Day concert. More predictable still are the recognizable beats to follow, as the women grow as performers (surprise, one of them has a beautiful voice!) and cope with their maddening no-news-is-good-news reality. But Military Wives' strength ultimately lies in its extreme familiarity. This is a movie about people trying to establish a routine, trying desperately to feel normal and comforted, and it works best when it speaks the language of the normal and the comforting. Nobody, inside the movie or watching it, wants these women to toil over Kate's solemn hymns; everyone involved brightens up a bit when Lisa steps in and starts a singalong of "Don't You Want Me." This is not a time to bother with sheet music!

Military Wives absolutely succeeds in what it sets out to do — which is, admittedly, not a particularly grand ambition, but that doesn't mean it's not a mark worth hitting. The performance of Scott Thomas is pitch-perfect as usual, and the chemistry among the mostly female cast feels warm and genuine. The film's greatest weaknesses lie in its musical sequences and the baffling arc of the choir itself. The leap from "sober karaoke," as Kate quite rightly scoffs, to a nationally televised performance is rather alarming, considering how little indication the film gives that the women have put any meaningful energy into the endeavor. (At one point, one of them mentions Sister Act, which is a highly unflattering comparison that Military Wives would have been wiser to avoid.)

Rachel Tunnard and Rosanne Flynn's script piles on the schmaltz (even as the ladies pointedly keep a stiff upper lip), but that's part of the film's particular pleasure. I did not for one second buy into the contrived ascent of this choir, but did I get a little misty when they delivered their final performance, carefully engineered to put a tidy cap on all the hardship the previous 90 minutes had depicted? Of course I did. I'm not a monster.

The timeliness of the film is particularly affecting when they all say goodbye to their loved ones, then cope with loneliness by compulsively online shopping and trying not to think about horrible possibilities over which they have no control. There are better movies than this one, sure. But this is its moment. Call it military punctuality. B

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