Have you seen Military Wives yet? Founder and director of Reading Force, Alison Baverstock, gives her thoughts on the film here, what the makers got wrong, and what they got so right…
Military wives are mostly invisible. Partly through inclination – we just tend to get on with it – and partly because wider society has not, until now, appeared particularly interested in us. Joining the military is both a heritable and regionally-specific activity, so there are some families/parts of the country that know all about the Forces, and others that are almost entirely ignorant. So a film that features our lives – Military Wives – was something I had to see at the earliest opportunity.
For those of us who have lived the military life, it’s easy to point out the (many) things they got wrong. The most obvious one is the Commanding Officer’s (CO) wife. Kristen Scott-Thomas is a caricature. Both the way in which she pushes to the front of the queue in the Naafi or resents exemption from security processes at the gate felt alien. Attracting negative attention in this way would be unthinkable. Raising and lowering of the security state was something we experienced regularly; while feeling reassured by the new checks, we would also be wondering what new information had been received.
She and her husband are also much too old for their parts. The CO of a unit is usually around 40 and so is much closer in age to those in their unit. While away on a deployment, it would be normal for them, usually accompanied by the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM), to take part in routine patrols in addition to their leadership-roles, to raise morale and show that everyone is in the same situation.
When the military personnel are away, it’s normal for the wives of the CO and the RSM to manage the social programme for everyone else – so I’m not sure from where the idea of the CO’s wife wanting to be involved for the first time came. Bad news would have been broken by a padre and team from the unit – at least someone who knew the person receiving it, not two faceless people dressed in black.
It’s a life I have lived, so you’ll have to forgive me for my detailed response. But for the same reason I would like to highlight how much the film producers also got right. Whether or not the film was made at a barracks, the surroundings felt intensely real; the intertwining of uniformed and non-uniformed – the norm for military families which can seem so strange to everyone else. While in barracks, you do regularly have to pause while those in uniform march past. There was the familiar external oozing of the brickwork; the way the fridge never fitted the alcove space in the kitchen, created by a long-removed fireplace. The desire to make a temporary accommodation (your ‘quarter’) your own by decorating it was immense when first married, but with experience, the need to put it back to its original state before ‘march-out’ overcame the desire for personalisation, and I came to regard every living space as temporary. None of our four children ever got a specially decorated bedroom.
Most importantly, and what is special about this film, is that it captured the sheer closeness of all those women whose situation you shared – which leaves bonds that last a life-time. The way in which we supported each other through the ups and downs of deployment, personal difficulties and temporary heartaches still leaves a pit in my stomach. We felt like a team, whatever our background and husband’s rank.
Many barracks are not close to employment and it can be really hard for the non-military spouse to find a job – so throwing yourself into work is seldom an option. Singing was started to help fill the gap when military personnel go away on deployment, and now there are 75 choirs based in the UK and across British military bases overseas.
The film is good on the importance of letters, and the need for communication. Now families can use Reading Force too – a shared-reading activity that can link military personnel and their families at home, and which does not risk ending in a frozen screen, mid-conversation. It connects those involved on a very deep level because they are in each others’ minds while reading the same book, and this involvement far outlasts the telephone call.
Military Wives is an enjoyable and empathetic romp and there is much to relate to at a very personal level, and it captures just how fantastic and invaluable Military Wives Choirs are. While I left the cinema in tears, I cannot help feeling that a little more thought could have made it a much more realistic portrait and have better honoured the real and extraordinary military wives. The audience who will most want to see this film are bound to notice.