Bill Nighy, Drama, Gemma Arterton, History, Literary adaptation, Lone Scherfig, Ministry of Information, Moviemaking, Review, Sam Claflin, Screenwriting, World War II
D: Lone Scherfig / 117m
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Paul Ritter, Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, Henry Goodman, Jake Lacy, Jeremy Irons, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory
Britain, the summer of 1940. Since the outbreak of World War II, the British Ministry of Information has been making short information movies to be shown at cinemas. Its film department – headed up by Roger Swain (Grant) – takes on a young Welsh woman called Catrin Cole (Arterton) to act as a screenwriter, and in particular, to write better dialogue for any female characters (the other screenwriters are, unsurprisingly, all male). Catrin settles in, and finds herself working alongside Tom Buckley (Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Ritter), and under the stewardship of Phyl Moore (Stirling). Catrin soon earns a degree of respect from Buckley, who is nominally more experienced, and her work begins to gain recognition. But at home, it’s not quite the same. Catrin’s husband, Ellis (Huston), is a struggling artist whose bleak reflections on the War aren’t attracting any attention. He’s pleased that she’s doing well in her own job, but is inwardly jealous at the same time.
The film department is charged with making a full-length feature. Catrin is given the task of talking to twin sisters who took out their father’s boat and sailed across to Dunkirk to help in the evacuation. But she soon discovers that the boat developed engine trouble five miles out and they never even got to Dunkirk, let alone rescued anyone. Undeterred, Catrin returns to the Ministry and tells a fictional version of the twins’ story – and one that is believed by everyone except Tom. He keeps quiet, and the project is given the go-ahead. Catrin, Tom and Raymond all work on the script, while the casting goes ahead. Pompous actor Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy) is approached through his agent, Sammy Smith (Marsan), but turns down the supporting role of drunken Uncle Frank out of misplaced pride. Tragedy strikes, however, and Hilliard takes on the role thanks to pressure from Sammy’s sister, Sophie (McCrory).
The truth about the twins’ rescue mission is discovered, and though the Ministry has been determined to make a movie out of an act of real life heroism, Catrin convinces everyone to make a fictional version. Production begins on location in Devon, but the unexpected intervention of the Secretary of War (Irons) means that the script will now have to accommodate the presence of an American soldier in its plot, and specifically, Eagle Squadron pilot (and non-actor) Carl Lundberg (Lacy). Catrin persuades Hilliard to tutor Lundberg, while she and Tom grow closer. As the shoot progresses, their relationship develops to the point where surprising information volunteered by Catrin herself promises a sea change in her relationships with both Ellis and Tom.
Adapted from the novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, this awkwardly titled movie is the kind of heritage picture that the British do so well. From the moment Catrin steps out onto a Blitz-torn street we’re in oh-so familiar territory, with just enough artfully stylised devastation to provide the viewer with a visual shorthand as to the time and place they’re witnessing. In a way it’s comforting, seeing all these bomb blasted buildings with their scattered debris, and as Arterton’s plucky Welsh screenwriter-to-be makes her way to the Ministry of Information, there’s a sense that whatever happens in Their Finest, it will retain the opening’s carefully constructed sense of artificiality, and avoid any “difficult” or “realistic” moments.
And so it proves. The movie ticks all the boxes for a nicely balanced period feature, with Catrin filling the role of innocent abroad, Tom as the adversary-cum-mentor figure that she’ll inevitably fall in love with, Hilliard as the curmudgeonly actor who’s on grudging terms with humility, and a variety of supporting characters who pop up every now and again, contribute a further variety of notable moments or dialogue (“He is an actor. Unless you have reviewed him, had intercourse with him, or done both simultaneously, he won’t remember you.”), and then fade back into the background until needed again. There’s the requisite number of apparently insurmountable problems that are resolved in under a minute flat, bickering and misunderstandings between the romantic leads, obvious references to the sexism of the times, Richard E. Grant pulling faces whenever he can, and all of it coated with the rosy sheen of familiarity and nostalgia.
But again, this is the kind of heritage picture that the British (or the British as led by a director from Denmark) do so well, and again, so it proves. While the plot and its surrounding storylines all have the look and feel of scenarios we’ve seen before – and too many times at that – the best thing that can be said about Their Finest is that the director, the writer, the cast, the crew, hell everyone involved, knew this was true, and proceeded without a moment’s hesitation in using that knowledge as the basis for providing audiences with a very enjoyable movie indeed. Is Their Finest a true original, groundbreaking and constantly surprising? No, it’s not. Is it a movie that will change anyone’s life? Again, no, it’s not. But it is a movie that does do something unexpected: it makes the movie within the movie, The Nancy Starling, the emotional core of everything, and it does so with a carefree, nonchalant sense of entitlement that you couldn’t have predicted at the start. It’s here that Hilliard proves what a fine actor he really is, it’s here where a lunkhead American soldier can appear soulful and poetic, and where traditional values around serving the greater good and unavoidable personal sacrifice are made self-evident.
While the movie within a movie offers more dramatic meat than its parent, what the rest of the movie does offer is a recognisable template to hang a romantic comedy with dramatic elements on. It does this effectively and with a minimum of fuss, and gives the audience a succession of self-reflexive feelgood moments where anticipation is satisfied and rewarded thanks to the script’s commitment to playing it (pleasantly) safe. Only two moments stand out as being darker than all the rest. One is a bitter reflection on the realities of death by bombing, while the other is a “twist” that is as bold as it is dispiriting. Otherwise and elsewhere, the movie maintains its wry, comedic edge and its avoidance of being too serious.
Scherfig injects her usual bonhomie into things, keeping it all light enough to fly away forever, and doing so with a studied sense of what’s acceptable in terms of such lightweight material. A quality cast helps tremendously with Arterton displaying a charm and likeability that has been missing from more recent roles, while Claflin is all pent-up superiority and diffidence as the movie’s real leading man. Nighy invites the viewer to laugh at Hilliard with affection, while further down the cast list, McCrory scores highly as another woman attempting to do well in a traditionally man’s world. It’s all neatly held together by Gaby Chiappe’s heartfelt and engaging script, and the scenes behind the making of the movie within a movie are terrific in the way that they expose some of the tricks of the trade back in the Forties. It’s dourly glamorous too, with fine cinematography by Sebastian Blenkov, and there’s a suitably nostalgic yet rousing score by Rachel Portman that perfectly accentuates the movie’s sprightly tone.
Rating: 7/10 – an enjoyable piece of wartime flag-waving, Their Finest is funny, romantic, occasionally dramatic, and as winsome as it can be given its backdrop; entertaining in a generic yet fulfilling way, the movie coasts along for much of its running time, but it does so in such an amiable fashion that most viewers won’t mind at all.