Film (described as a comedy drama) written by Roseanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, directed by Peter Cattaneo (2019) 112 minutes
The scene is clearly set at the start: the soldiers (men and one woman) depart for active service leaving the wives and children at home. The streets are empty, the wine bottles are out.
Military Wives is a true story of those left behind at a British military base who decide to form a choir to take their minds off the worry about their loved ones away in Afganistan (and yes, they do acknowledge the controversy over the war). The film does not show, or even imply, any heroics. Neither is there any romanticism. It’s not even corny. It’s about the women and how they manage their situations. And it’s about grief.
There are two, clear portrayals of the effects of bereavement: one death (a young son killed in action) has already taken place before the film starts; and the other happens mid way through. Both are poignant and realistically depicted by Kristin Scott Thomas and Amy James-Kelly respectively. In a manageable and sincere way, the film presents this tricky subject sympathetically.
Various types of grief are embodied in the film: there is the stoical stage where you get on with things, try to stay calm, put on a brave face; and there’s the weeping one, the impossibility of doing anything other than having it all pour out. In a subtle way, we are also shown some of the displacement activities which any grieving person might find themselves involved in: volunteering for another stint in the field; over-working; caring for others; or impulsive buying of unwanted things which sit in their packets in the airing cupboard.
The film explores the various ways we cope – by being alone with it (either isolated or simply private), and by being supported through sharing with those who know it first-hand or who are empathetic. Group singing is useful both as self expression (remember that phrase, ‘sing your heart out’?), and also as relief. Communal carolling does not activate the logical-thinking left brain, rather it is the right side which lights up, the part associated with intuition, imagination and creativity.
What has not been understood until recently is that singing in groups triggers the communal release of serotonin and oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and even synchronises our heart beats.
From ‘The Neuroscience of Singing’
Part of the difficulty that we have with grief in our society is that we don’t always know how to deal with others suffering from it. In this film, there are a couple of men who clam up in the face of sadness. This type of behaviour is common, human even. Dr Rachel Clarke says, ‘None of us… In modern British culture, are taught how to confront grief and loss.’ And while that is not strictly true, some of us are, it is the case for many.
Not referring to the death or loss that has just taken place can leave those who have been bereaved feeling as if they are not coping, or as if there’s something wrong with them. In fact it is usually caused by our desperate need not to ‘make things worse’ or ‘put our foot in it’. Seeing this inability to communicate acted out so effectively on the big screen allows the viewer to take a step back and realise how much space we sometimes put between ourselves and those we care about if we are not brave enough to ask them how they are and listen, open heartedly, to their reply.
Grief usually contains the full range of emotions at one stage or another, and there is a tense scene towards the end of Military Wives where it is clear how anger can make you say things you wish you hadn’t. Sometimes that can be cathartic. The manner in which bereavement is shown through the characters’ lives is well thought through, honest, and never soppy
Music is, of course, highly emotive, bringing back memories and connecting us with our feelings in situations where conversation can sometimes fail. Most of the songs in the film are upbeat, appropriate and familiar (You’ve Got a Friend, With or Without You) and, although they mention the Robbie Williams song Angels several times, they don’t resort to the top funeral songs list. However, beware the Ave Maria – that was the point at which my floodgates truly opened!
There are several other themes, including a battle between the two main female characters, ably played by Sharon Horgan (Lisa) and Scott Thomas (Kate). Scott Thomas is funnier than I’ve ever seen her before, and although she softens during the pic, she still manages to sing and sort-of-dance in the final choir performance with her shoulders raised and elbows stiff, remaining impressively uptight to the last.
So, it is not unremittingly sad, indeed there are a lot of laughs, but Military Wives does not shy away from death and grief. If you need a good cry, and sometimes, let’s face it, it’s necessary to let off the pressure cooker caused by the suffering around us and clear out the tubes, then this will do the job.
Singing is good for you – 11 ways it’s good for your health