Lone Scherfig's 'Their Finest' is a witty surprise at TIFF 2016


Lone Scherfig, the Danish director of Carey Mulligan’s breakthrough film An Education, is back at the Toronto International Film Festival with Their Finest, a delightful movie about moviemaking—in this case, movies for the British Ministry of Information’s Film Division in 1940, at the height of the Blitz. Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a young Welsh woman who thinks she’s interviewing for a job as a secretary but is actually hired to write “slop,” her male associates’ insulting term for dialogue between women.

Catrin is sent to Devon to interview twin sisters who took their father’s boat and helped rescue soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk, and finds their story isn’t quite as blazingly heroic as the press made it out to be. But, of course, that never stopped a film studio from embellishing the truth.

Adapted by Gaby Chiappe from Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, this comedy-drama entertainingly tracks the ups and downs of the making of this propaganda feature, from script problems to casting issues to unforeseen wartime emergencies. (And we eventually get to see highlights of the movie Catrin has essentially salvaged.) There are also off-screen romantic complications: Catrin lives with a struggling painter (Jack Huston) who was injured in the Spanish Civil War, but she has the kind of contentious relationship with acerbic writing partner Tom Buckley (Sam Clafin) that fails to hide their mutual attraction.

Bill Nighy, as is his wont, steals the film as a ham actor past his prime, who bristles at the idea of being cast as the twins’ drunken uncle but ultimately triumphs in the role. And there’s a very amusing subplot involving a handsome blond Norwegian-American military man with no acting experience (Jake Lacy) who’s been added to the cast to appeal to Americans and entice them to join the war effort. But be warned: A final-act twist is sudden and cruel, perhaps befitting the precarious wartime backdrop.

Scherfig’s film has a decidedly feminist perspective, but it’s delivered with a light and engaging touch. And Arterton proves once again she’s one of the most charming actresses of her generation, deserving of bigger stardom. Lionsgate has Their Finest for the U.K., and like the movie within the movie, this witty piece of light entertainment could translate well to American audiences.