Morale Force: Lone Scherfig's 'Their Finest' tells inside story of a WWII propaganda film

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Yes, of course, Lone Scherfig has seen Day for Night, François Truffaut’s throbbing heart of a valentine to the moviemaking art. Truth is, she can even quote Valentina Cortese’s famous line to her director when she forgets her lines in front of the cameras and blithely breaks into numbers: “I could always do that with Federico!”

That same kind of infectious affection for film informs and animates Their Finest, the Danish director’s ninth picture, her fourth in English. The STX release is an unabashed celebration of cinema—at a place and time when it mattered most, Blitz-battered London in the summer of 1940—demonstrating how the medium could (and did) mold people’s minds and lift their morale. And, as in Day for Night, film is depicted as a potent (indeed, unstoppable) force which even a death during the production doesn’t derail.

Their Finest is short for Winston Churchill’s clarion call, “Their finest hour,” itself short for the more-to-the-point title of Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half, about making a propaganda feature to stiffen the upper lips and resolve of Brits under siege. (Gaby Chiappe did a lighter-than-you’d-expect adaptation.)

“If you like the film, then you really should read the book,” Scherfig suggests. “There’s more characters in it, more material. Our film is kind of the spine of the book. I had to prioritize a lot with the story. Part of the job of directing is deciding what’s important and what’s not, because you just can’t get it all into one picture. We picked and chose what we wanted and fitted it around one central character.”

As in her three previous British outings (which include Carey Mulligan’s luminous Oscar bid for An Education), that character is a woman heading for a writing career.

This fact alone doesn’t necessarily make Scherfig a feminist filmmaker, however. “It’s just a coincidence,” she insists. “I believe that these films—or, perhaps, this endless lifelong crusade that I’m on—is more about values than gender. My values.

“There are people, in fact, who feel that Their Finest could have been more feminist. But it was never my intention to make a feminist film. The woman here is not super-ambitious. As firebrands go, she’s rather mild and innocent—but, little by little, discovers her talents in a male-dominated world. She finds her professional feet—how much fun it could be to go to work. Her love, later for film and filmmaking, was much more prominent to me when I first read the script than the portrait of Catrin.”

Catrin Cole, played by an enormously winning Gemma Arterton, is a Welsh lass who is hired by the British Ministry of Information’s film division to serve “slop” to the movie masses—a good thing, since “slop” is derisive shorthand for providing “a woman’s touch” to war-propaganda shorts that encourage the fairer sex to work in munitions plants. The term is used by her male co-scripter, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin, in a more mature and appealing display than The Hunger Games allowed).

Their flinty exchanges make for a slow-to-ignite romance, but, if you’re familiar with Tracy-vs.-Hepburn, you won’t be thrown off the scent. It’s like a love story in Braille.

“Gemma and Sam are lovely people, so it wasn’t a complicated shoot at all—because they were very humble and friendly,” says the director. “In fact, they’re so kind in their motives I often had to fight to make sure I got the best from them. More than once, I said to Gem, ‘Remember, you’re the lead. If you want to be difficult, you have every right to it. You haven’t played your prima-donna card yet. Go ahead, play it.’”

Throughout, Scherfig pours on buckets of the war-years ambience. “I don’t do it alone,” she says with appreciative nods to Sebastian Blenkov (cinematographer), Alice Normington (production designer) and Charlotte Walter (costume designer).

“I am genuinely interested in the history of the last century. Period films probably work better when they are from a time where film existed. I like the fact I can go in a time machine for a while as a director and refine. I don’t have ambitions for my characters to talk like people talk today. It makes sense to try and make it correct.

“One of the biggest challenges for me in making this film was to get the myriad of details on the screen because the book is very thick (and very true) with period atmosphere. You get a lot of characters, and all those characters have little moments of their own—but, at the same time, I wanted you to still feel it’s Catrin’s journey.”

Generally, the tone of the film is Romantic Comedy Lite, but there is an unscheduled (and, some may argue, unnecessary) turn to tragedy toward the end—though it does reinforce the overall theme of a woman finding her niche in the wartime workplace.

“People did die all of a sudden during that horrible time. They’d fall into a hole in the streets of London and never be heard from again. Every morning during the Blitz you’d wake up and discover that you had lost people in the night that you knew.

“We had a lot of talks during the filming about how to make it lighter and more positive—less of a tragedy—but you can only have so much comedy in a film about war. You just have to do justice to the war, so it felt right to go the way we went.”

Ghosts of Alexander Korda, Gabriel Pascal, John Mills and other cinematic movers-and-shakers of that vintage hover over the performances of the sterling cast that Scherfig has assembled—such worthies as Henry Goodman, Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory and Jeremy Irons. The latter is particularly hilarious, delivering a heaping helping of uncured ham as a Secretary of War who, preaching to the propagandists, breaks into Henry V’s thunderous St. Crispin’s Day speech.

The chief figure of fun in the film is a Valentina Cortese carryover, a past-his-prime star struggling to stay afloat with character parts, which he grudgingly condescends to do. (A war is going on, you know, although all he notices is the decline of good waiters at his favorite Italian restaurant.) Emotionally myopic, narcissistic and in ego-overdrive, the role is a familiar one for Bill Nighy, and he plays it with a grand élan that is the single most satisfying quality in the film. One critic referred to Their Finest as War, Actually, a reference to Richard Curtis’ Love, Actually in which Nighy uproariously spoofed an aging rock star still flaunting his flamboyance. It won him numerous awards but nary an Oscar nomination. Maybe this one will do the trick.

Directing Nighy is as much fun as watching him, Scherfig contends. “The first thing you’re impressed with is how disciplined he is,” she says. “He would show up at the first read-through and know every line by heart. But there were a lot of unclaimed moments in the film where we would just make things up on the spot and do them.

“He likes to come up with suggestions. So do I. Then we’d get a sense of what’s right for the film. A lot of our ideas were amusing but didn’t belong in the film. It has to be organic. He can’t steal the show that much, but he does do a pretty good job of it.”

No. 10 on Scherfig’s film agenda—her first shot in New York—is weeks away from lensing. It’s called Secrets from the Russian Tea Room—and she’s very hush-hush about the casting, but if that isn’t a call to arms for Bill Nighy, I don’t know what is.