And back into the Blitz we go. After the somewhat underwhelming Allied of last year failed to really get the heart racing with its depiction of wartime London, I was bit more interested in this, a look at British efforts to craft engaging, morale-raising, American enticing films during the Second World War, and all through a sort of dramedy lens. While the director, Lone Scherfig, isn’t a mainstream name (mostly Danish work, then the Oscar nominated An Education, and 2014’s forgettable The Riot Club), she’s a woman directing a World War Two film, a rarity that deserves consideration. Backed by the BBC, she’s gathered an impressive cast too: the continually under-rated Gemma Arterton, rising star Sam Claflin and the ever-great Bill Nighy, along with a host of others in minor roles. So, was Their Finest everything it potentially could be, or another dour trek through the grim surrounds of broken mortar and bland sentiment? I saw an advanced screening of Their Finest during the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.
In the darkest hours of the Blitz, Catrin Cole (Arterton) takes a job at the Ministry of Information writing “slop”: women’s dialogue for propaganda films, under the supervision of cynical Tom Buckley (Claflin). The two are soon the driving force behind the Ministry’s most ambitious project yet: a film about civilians rescuing soldiers from Dunkirk, that reluctantly draws in a past-his-prime veteran Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy). While dealing with their own burgeoning relationship, Catrin and Tom must deal with a host of different pressures: the government that wants their film to be a rallying cry to an American audience, Catrin’s struggling artist husband (Jack Huston) and the constant chance that the next bomb is for them.
It’s not rare that I see a film that is trying to be many different things at once, with differing plotlines, themes and messages attempting, and more often than not failing, to have all of the cake and eat it too. But what is rare is a film that does this, and actually pulls it off, for the most part. Their Finest, to my surprise and delight, is one of those rare films, a film about the war, about filmmaking, about women, about death, about getting older, about comedy, and about romance, that manages to pull it all off, mostly. Adapted from the novel by Lissa Evans, Their Finest is a sleeper hit in the making.
In terms of being about the war, and this mostly well-explored little section of it, Their Finest is an engaging success. Scherfig eschews showing any actual fighting on distant fronts, in favour of an almost exclusively civilian focused framing. It would be east for Their Finest to turn into a maudlin, sentimental portrayal of the “Blitz spirit”, but instead we get a film that focuses mostly on the randomness of the violence, where one never knows if the building they are in is going to be rubble in a moment. The bombs go off and people just have to pick up the pieces, literally, in a film of subdued colours and restrictive lighting. The “C’est la guerre” spirit of sexual liberality and gallows humour abounds, in line with awful tragedy: a particularly striking moment sees Catrin start laughing when the bodies she sees after a bombing turn out to be shopfront mannequins, until she happens upon the one real corpse.
In terms of being about film-making, it’s a really fascinating tale. Catrin starts off re-dubbing short films urging the citizens of Britain to grow their own carrots, but soon jumps into The Nancy Starling, a romantic tale about twin sisters who steal their uncles boat to go and rescue a boyfriend and an American journalist at Dunkirk. It’s supposedly based on a true story, but the real sisters broke down halfway there (and there was no American): when the obvious untruth is pointed out, Tom retorts that instead it will be based on 338’000 true stories, making the prescient comment that you should never let “facts get in the way of truth, and truth in the way of a good story”: a phrase that makes one think of more than one current news story.
Catrin is caught up in a game of constant re-writes to accommodate every need: a love story, an American in Dunkirk, a comedically drunk uncle with a serious side, a rescued dog, a British boat that isn’t allowed to breakdown (bad for morale): watching her and Tom jump through the hoops and square the circles is an entertaining movie in itself, helped by the multitude of supporting players, not least Bill Nighy’s magnetic Hilliard, once a legendary screen detective, and now a deadbeat seemingly out of decent roles: when he finds out he’s tapped to play the drunken uncle he despairingly reads the description in an hilariously horrified tone: “A shipwreck of a man; Sixties, looks older!”
But there’s heart aplenty and the creation of a film I sort of wanted to watch: when Catrin transforms Uncle Frank into a tragic figure, who, dying, thinks the male leads are his sons lost in World War One, I actually felt sad for the fictional creation inside a fictional creation, Their Finest capturing how something as rigmarole and straightforward as scriptwriting can conjure up audience emotions from words on a page. Tom gets to the heart of why it is so, commenting that stories with structure narrative and a (usually happy) ending are preferable to the complicatedness of reality. The film isn’t so much a love letter to that era of film-making in the same vein as Hail, Caesar! or La La Land, but is content to showcase both the power and the pitfalls of propaganda in a free society, combined with a lot of laughter and tears. Scherfig delights in shining a light on production details, like matte paintings, windowed backgrounds and basic miniatures, that give you a nice feel of what film-making at the time was like, without ever becoming overly-praising.
In terms of being a film about women, Their Finest also succeeds admirably. It never turns into a soap opera in its portrayal of female characters taking on male jobs, but makes its point briefly and succinctly about how the role of women in wartime isn’t something that could be altered easily once the fighting stopped: as one character puts it, men are worried women “will refuse to go back into our box” after the guns cease firing. The crisis over The Nancy Starling comes down to who will be the hero who saves the day at the end: the reliable British Tommy, the chiselled handsome American, or, as Catrin wants, the twin sisters. The argument flows back and forth, about gender roles in film, in line with the balance of power in the Catrin/Tom relationship. In the end, the power of women in Their Finest is ever present: from making bullets in the opening scene to making movies by the end.
At the heart of all of this is that romance plot between Catrin and Tom, which, if the film has a significant weakpoint, might just be it. It isn’t that the romantic element is unwelcome in the surrounds of this narrative, but it is a little forced, and it is a little by-the-books: until it spectacularly isn’t, in a third act swerve you might not see coming but that is utterly fitting in the kind of story Their Finest is trying to tell. Gemma Arterton has yet to really grasp the kind of role that will elevate her beyond drek like Hansel And Gretel or the beauty-centric stuff that saw her get an extended cameo in Quantum Of Solace. But she can act: Byzantium showed that spectacularly, and she’s done some Shakespeare in her time too. Here, she really imbues Catrin with this aching sense of struggle. She isn’t the kind of feminist icon to make big speeches (the films look called to mind the disappointing Suffragette, but there is a large contrast between the two otherwise), but has a quieter assertiveness to her. Her mission is to make a film both accurate and optimistic, and she’s trying to be ever-optimistic in her private life too, despite the struggles of her distant wounded husband. Trying to be a doting housewife and the feminist forefront, Atherton’s Catrin is torn in two, and she portrays that division with aplomb.
The romance equation is completed by the surprisingly enjoyable Claflin, moving beyond his Hunger Games heartthrob phase and the sickly sweet You Before Me in a charmingly cynical role that displays real maturity, the downbeat but irrepressible Buckley, who struggles with growing feelings for Catrin. It could ruin the feminist leanings the film portrays at times, but Their Finest manages, just about, to make it fit: the romance between Catrin and Buckley is an addendum to the drive for greater female parts to play in society, not a replacement for it.
Nighy’s part deserves some attention all of its own. He gives the film some of its very best humour as the bombastic, arrogant and utterly charming Ambrose Hilliard, still caught thinking he’s the same man who wowed audiences decades previously when he’s becoming just another also-ran. It would be easy for him to just be another comic foil to more serious characters, but Their Finest, in line with a general tone of mixing bleak reality with black comedy, makes him a much more interesting figure, who faces of choice between irrelevancy and evolving himself into something more than just a pompous artist. A striking scene occurs when he is obligated to identify a friend killed in a bombing: his duty done, another air raid starts, and the morgue nurses invite him to stay: “We have plenty of room” they gently offer, to his horror. Hilliard’s story is of getting older in a world where the young are dying at a more frequent rate: it’s effectively tinged with melancholy, but not without some British-style optimism, brought brilliantly to the screen by the ever capable Nighy, not too far-off his Love, Actually turn here, enjoying a nice back-and-forth with Helen McCrory’s Polish agent.
Most importantly, the film is largely about death: how it happens, how we approach it, and how we move beyond it, both its immediate effects and the crippling fear of it. Tom outlines his belief, upon hearing that a college has suffered a loss, that death is never “for anything”, it’s just something that happens, a sentiment that flies in the face of the propaganda message he’s trying to instil onscreen. Their Finest takes that idea and runs with it, George R.R. Martin style, showcasing instances of death and loss as randomly as possible, be it from German bombs or random misfortunes. But where with Martin it frequently comes off as hackneyed and lazy, in the world of Their Finest that of Blitz and of bombs, it fits, and ties in with the general tone of C’est la guerre I discussed earlier.
Gaby Chiappe’s script is a fine one: full of dry British wit mixed with suitable amounts of wartime drama, dramedy in the finest sense. A special treat is Jake Lacy’s enthusiastic but artistically deaf Carl Lundbeck, the American RAF pilot conscripted into being The Nancy Starling’s resident Yank, who delivers his dialogue in run-on sentences while smiling directly at the camera, but there’s also recurring scenes with a dog (both in the film and without), Nighy’s loquacious sneering and Richard E. Grant’s baffled expression as Jeremy Irons’ Minister of War (two brief, but effective, cameos), rambles out Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech in a secret briefing. There’s a warmth amid all the black humour, that exemplifies the reaction of a people under fire.
While Scherfig lacks great panache in her visual direction, Their Finest is still a good-looking production, bridging the gap between humdrum reality with its bombed-out buildings, grey skies and brown offices and the world of film with its sepia tones, soft light and production fakery. Catrin’s reaction to a recent bomb detonation is an inspired sequence, as is her finally taking the time top watch her creation towards the end. It’s interesting to look at how the world of film closer to the event treated Dunkirk, now that we are only a few months away from Christopher Nolan’s modern take on the subject matter (stay tuned): Scherfig maintains her distance from the event in question, satisfied with Devon coastline recreations.
Their Finest has relegated itself to the festival circuit thus far, and apparently will see a wider release soon enough. I don’t know how much of a success I can reasonably expect it to be. But it really does deserve a bigger audience than the kind of numbers festival darlings usually get. It shines a light on an interesting portion of the British World War Two experience, and resonates with effective sub-plots and overall themes. The cast is uniformly great, the script is wonderful and the visual direction does what is required. This should be next step in the ladder of Arterton’s career, a suitable lifting-off point for Claflin and another feather in the cap of Nighy. For Scherfig, it’s something that should give her a lot more mainstream attention, if there’s any justice. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Lionsgate).