Their Finest (2016)
In the fight for freedom everyone played a part
A warm, delightfully funny wartime drama, Their Finest gets a lot of things right, the film never shoving its feminist agenda down viewers’ throats. Directed by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig, An Education (2009), who’s clearly got a knack for telling stories about young women coming into their own, Their Finest tells the tale of Catrin Cole (a wonderful Gemma Arterton), an untried screenwriter who’s recruited by the Ministry of Information’s film division, along with a rough and ready cast and crew, to make a morale-boosting movie about the Dunkirk evacuation during the Battle of Britain in the 1940s.
Their Finest opens in a war-torn London, where we’re introduced to copywriter Catrin Cole, who lives with her husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a struggling war artist whose work had been deemed too gloomy to be exhibited — Ellis exempt from the fighting due to a leg injury he got in the Spanish Civil War. Struggling to make ends meet, Catrin lands herself a job at the Ministry of Information, where she’s tasked with writing ‘plausible’ dialogue for women (dubbed ‘slop’ by her male co-workers) in propaganda shorts (that were played at movie theaters) to lift people’s spirits and pride during the Blitz. Emphasizing realism and authenticity in all of her work, Catrin excels at the gig, despite being on a lower pay grade than all the men she’s working beside.
Yearning for a real story to raise the nation’s morale — and inspire America to join the war effort — head of the film division, Roger Swain (Richard E. Grant), and producer Gabriel Baker (Henry Goodman) send Catrin to interview timid sisters Lily and Rose Starling (Francesca and Lily Knight), a pair of twins that had taken their boozed-up dad’s boat and traveled from London’s Southend to Dunkirk to rescue a number of wounded British soldiers during the infamous evacuation. While there, Catrin realizes that their account isn’t as heroic as it initially seemed, our conflicted protagonist fudging a few of the details so that she, along with her male co-writers Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter), could turn their story into the valiant motion picture that the world needed to see, The Nancy Starling.
Adapted by television writer Gaby Chiappe — from the pages of Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half — this engaging lil’ comedy-romance is a tone of fun, with scribe Chiappe keeping things light and uplifting without ever underselling the devastating nature of the Blitz. Be that as it may, Their Finest does something a little different, and that is, explore the war’s effects on society back in the ’40s, particularly when women were nabbing jobs that were once considered out of their reach — a perspective that’s rarely seen in war-themed movies of today. Technically, the film looks lovely, with production designer Alice Normington, Nowhere Boy (2009), bringing this hazy era to life (on a modest budget, too), when the future of the country was still very much uncertain. The narrative is enhanced further by the ‘40s-style making of the film within the film itself, chiefly the movie-making process, Their Finest giving viewers an insightful look into the techniques used to create old-school movie magic — the highlight, an eye-opening matte painting shot revealing several troops on the shores of Dunkirk.
The radiant Gemma Arterton, Gemma Bovery (2014), is stellar as Catrin Cole — a character inspired by the real-life Ealing screenwriter Diana Morgan — an internally powerful woman who’s working hard to earn respect from her colleagues, the 31-year old exhibiting Cole’s determination and warmth, both parts in equal measure. What’s more, Artrton sizzles when she’s sharing the screen with her mustached co-star Sam Claflin, Me Before You (2016), who portrays fellow writer Tom Buckley, the duo’s palpable chemistry more than magnetic, Artrton and Claflin wholly selling the flick’s ‘love triangle’ slant. Jake Lacy, Carol (2015), delivers the goods as photogenic U.S. Air Force hero Carl Lundbeck, who’s incorporated into The Nancy Starling to encourage the States to join the fight as allies, while Jeremy Irons, Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), and Richard E. Grant, Logan (2017), are amusing as a couple of tightly-wound English bureaucrats.
This, however, is Bill Nighy’s show, the 67-year-old veteran performer stealing all of his scenes as conceited actor Ambrose Hilliard, an aging star of a pre-war detective series who’s struggling with the idea of playing a drunk old uncle as opposed to a handsome starry-eyed lead. Nighy also manages to show off his singing chops whilst delivering a pretty spiffy rendition of Scottish folk song ‘Wild Mountain Thyme (Will Ye Go, Lassie Go).’ Moreover, when Hilliard’s Polish agent, Sammy Smith (Eddie Marsan), dies from a bomb blast, his sister Sophie (Helen McCrory) takes over, Nighy’s character eventually developing feelings for her in a touching little side romance.
With all of that said, Their Finest finishes on a misty-eyed note in the form of a late-arriving shock, director Gaby Chiappe (and her film) earning audiences’ tears rather than employing manipulation. With a relatively strong cast, assured direction and the right amount of sweetness, Their Finest is a salute worthy ode to two things I can totally get behind — working women and the power of the movies.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie