Their Finest (12a)
A wartime romance set in the dark days of the Blitz and Dunkirk. Gemma Arterton plays a talented writer seconded by the Ministry of Information to add a woman’s touch to a propaganda film that will be optimistic and credible enough to entice the Americans into the war. Full of expositions of the tricks of the trade this sports a witty script; the cast includes all the best of British Cinema.
Lone Scherfig | UK/Sweden | 2016 | 117 mins | 12A
Their Finest looks at first glance as if it’s going to be an anachronistic “brave little Britain” offering in the Ealing Studios mould, and an antidote to modern war films which pull no punches in their realistic depiction of the horror and chaos of battle, such as Dunkirk or Saving Private Ryan. However, we are in the hands of an accomplished filmmaker, Lone Scherfig (An Education, One Day and The Riot Club) who has taken a novel inspired by a real-life woman screenwriter to bring us a stylish and entertaining drama about the making of a World War Two propaganda film intended to raise public morale and influence the US to enter the war while the Blitz rages overhead.
Made by women (eg direction, production, score from Oscar winner Rachel Portman, editing, art, set and production design) and featuring several strong characters – including Gemma Arterton as the secretary turned writer, Rachael Sterling as the only other woman working on the film (for whose wicked and wonderful character I fell instantly), and Helen McCrory ‘s talent agent – this is a film with a clear feminist subtext about the under-valuing and under-representation of women in the film industry which still resonates today. Lissa Evans, a British writer and television producer with an interest in the period, came across the story of Diana Morgan who wrote “slop” – the term by which dialogue for women characters was known – for numerous Ealing Studios films, eventually becoming a screenwriter although usually under a man’s name. One film for which she was credited was the highly regarded propaganda film Went the Day Well (1942). Evans’s novel Their Finest Hour and a Half was adapted by television writer Gaby Chiappe (Lark Rise to Candleford, Vera, Shetland) whose witty script brings an engaging story to life with help from a galaxy of British actors.
As the Financial Times observed “the casting is knowingly heavy on national treasures. At one point, Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Irons appear in the same room which, with Bill Nighy nearby, suggests a deeply niche boy band.” However, in marked contrast to last year’s Dad’s Army which wasted an equally illustrious cast on one-dimensional characters and thin narrative, Their Finest offers both established actors and up-and-comers, such as the impressive Sam Claflin playing opposite Arterton, the chance to have a lot of fun with some very cleverly written creations, not least Bill Nighy’s “suavely dilapidated matinee star of yore” (The Independent). But there is also room for realism and depth of feeling as we witness through the characters’ eyes the aftermath of an air raid, or catch a glimpse of the genuine “keep calm and carry on” community spirit and camaraderie that got people through. In this vein watch out for Nighy’s contribution to the gathering in the pub at the end of the shoot.
The strong ensemble cast is undoubtedly one of the film’s major assets but it also manages to look pretty good on its low (£10 million) budget and produces some interesting visual effects, one of which is given away in a comedic scene stealer from Bill Nighy.
In addition to the fact that this is an enjoyable and well-made film, one reason that it ended up on this year’s programme is that we are a film society and thus suckers for films about film-making, particularly when they manage to hold the line between gentle sending-up of the way we were and lampoon. To quote Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson: “Scherfig doesn’t forget what the film is about underneath all that crinkly wit. It’s a story of people making things during difficult days, of the joy and necessity of art and invention at times when the world seems to be tilting toward annihilation. Their Finest is a warm, wistful celebration of that spirit, of the power that art has to lift and encourage—for both those who consume it and those who make it. Admirably, it is a movie about the magic of movies that somehow avoids self-important indulgence, the way many Hollywood films about Hollywood do.”