Of all our thespian Dames, Kristin Scott Thomas is perhaps the most sophisticated. No other actress can sip a glass of Champagne with quite the same air of urbane disdain. No other actress looks anywhere as stylish in a wide-brimmed hat, or can deliver an acerbically witty put-down with such plum-in-the-mouth aplomb. But beneath this cut-glass, often brittle, veneer, that many of her characters have, Kristin also has the ability to illuminate the hurt and vulnerability that lies beneath the surface.
Nowhere is this more visible than in her portrayal of an officer’s wife in Military Wives – the film based on the real military wives’ choir, which two spouses of soldiers serving in Afghanistan set up in 2010.
The fictional character of Kate lives on the base and has suffered great loss in her life. She attempts to bury her hurt by being caustic, opinionated and bossing about her fellow military wives – with often explosive consequences. However, as the choir is formed, we see Kate begin to heal through the power of communal singing and the pulling together of the community that surrounds her. What could be more apt at the present time?
“At its heart, the film is about friendship, camaraderie and the importance of having a sense of community,” Kristin has said. “About people enriching and supporting each other during the very difficult times that their loved ones are in danger. Coming together and singing takes their minds off something they have no control over. It’s a wonderful story of joy and perseverance, which is especially uplifting during these trying times. The film is an antidote to the difficult weeks we’ve all been going through.”
Before taking the role, Kristin already had some insight into the lives of military families, having been born into a naval one herself and experiencing a double loss before she hit puberty. Her father, Simon, was a pilot in the royal navy. When she was five, the plane he was flying as part of a training exercise crashed off the Dorset coast, and he was killed. Her mother remarried, but Kirstin’s new stepfather, also in the navy, was killed in another plane crash when she was 11.
Kristin has said: “With Military Wives, I wanted to show the bravery and the commitment of the people who are left waiting. I don’t know how my mother, left with five children, coped, but somehow she did.”
Kristin has revealed that she was initially nervous about taking on a singing role.
“I’m not a natural singer but once I’d realised a lot of us were in the same boat, a lot of us were nervous. . . that made me feel more comfortable. It was really good fun to all be in it together and I actually physically enjoyed the activity of singing. It can be really good for you.”
The cast all loved the singing, especially the final song in the film where they sang with an orchestra. “Singing in a choir has made me wish that at some point I’ll have the time and opportunity to become a member of a singing group in my own life. It’s a really lovely thing to be involved with,” she said.
On May 24th, Kristin turned 60. Kristin says: “I remember when I got my driving licence, when I was 18, I was told that I’d have to retake the test when I’m 63 or something. Back then the 2020s seemed like space age. But it’s here. It’s amazing that I actually got to this point.”
During lockdown, Kristin filmed an episode of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads – the series of dramatic monologues he wrote in the late Eighties. Kristin’s ‘Head’ is grasping antiques dealer, Celia, originally played by another Dame, Eileen Atkins.
“It was an absolute instant yes, as I’ve always wanted to do one of these,” she says. “It was an honour to be considered capable of doing this and taking it on. I felt incredibly excited and privileged and, to be honest, quite flattered.”
Having to film remotely, brought its own challenges. “We rehearsed on Zoom every afternoon for a couple of hours, which I found surprisingly exhausting as rehearsing remotely is much harder for some reason,” Kristin explains. “All hair, make-up and costume were also done via Zoom, but luckily a project like this attracts the best talent and both the costume designer and make-up artist told me exactly what to do.
“We filmed at Elstree on the set of EastEnders! That was such a thrill for me. I haven’t watched in years, but it was fascinating to see this place which is so rooted in British culture, so much part of the backdrop of our lives. I found it extraordinary to be on that set and know that it’s a permanent fixture. I didn’t get to visit the Queen Vic, but we were in the hairdressing salon, which was transformed into Celia’s antiques shop!”
Military Wives it out now on DVD/Blu-ray.
Talking Heads is available on BBC iPlayer