Set in 1940 during the Blitz, Their Finest is the story of Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a plucky Welshwoman living in London with her artist husband, who applies for a secretarial job in the Ministry of Information. When her supervisor learns that she has copywriting experience, he instead offers her a position as a writer of “slop” – the term used for dialogue between women – in propaganda films designed to keep up British morale. Needing to make films that promoted optimism and authenticity, the supervisor believes that they can only achieve the latter convincingly by hiring a woman.
Catrin travels to the coast to interview twin sisters who helped ferry soldiers home during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Despite discovering that the story had been grossly exaggerated, and the two women are disappointingly dull, she decides to pitch an idealized version of their story anyway – partly because she needs the money, partly because she believes that the tale would achieve the directive to make films that promote “authenticity informed by optimism”.
What follows is a charming story which, although at times little all over the place, gradually won me over. Their Finest is an understated celebration of the magic of film, and the resilience of the human spirit in very dark times.
As a proto-feminist protagonist, Catrin’s quiet assertiveness may seem a little meek for contemporary tastes, but her characterisation feels true to the period. The chin up, “get on with it” approach is broadly consistent to what we now associate with British wartime resilience. This characterisation calls for Arterton to portray inner strength and solidity devoid of showiness, and she rises to the occasion.
Arterton is at the centre of a stellar ensemble cast of British performers. Sam Claflin plays the acerbic, cynical Tom Buckley, Catrin’s colleague who believes that the phrase “authenticity informed by optimism” is inherently an oxymoron. Here he gets to show off an understated dramatic talent, a departure from the roles he’s become known for in The Hunger Games, Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Bill Nighy once again proves himself as a unique talent, absolutely robbing the cast of any scene in which he appears as the aging thespian Ambrose Hilliard, who is dealing with the onset of old age and genuinely befuddled at the scarcity of lead roles coming his way. Richard E. Grant (who appears to have stopped aging after Spice World), Helen McRory and Jeremy Irons round out this stellar ensemble, providing the film both humour and heft.
While the film certainly has laugh-out-loud moments, it also does well to show the darkness of wartime in an understated, unfussy way. While modern films depicting wartime are usually known for the dramatisations violence and death, the most unsettling aspect of this film is the decidedly un-showy way that death and violence is presented. Amidst scenes of devastating destruction, we are shown people just getting on with the act of living, not allowing themselves to wallow. Similar to how a whisper can be more frightening than a scream, the banality with which death and destruction are presented is quietly unsettling.
Director Lone Scherfig uses highly amusing recreations of WWII-era films and filmmaking tropes, recalling an era in which the art was anything but subtle, and at times Their Finest it is guilty of lack of subtlety itself. But then, the film is a celebration of old-fashioned storytelling. It has charm, excellent performances from a cast from whom you’d expect nothing less, and leaves you with a warm feeling.
Image: Transmission Films