Film Review: Their Finest

Britain's finest hour, when the people of London kept calm and carried on during Hitler's horrendous blitz, will never be forgotten as long as it can be mined for fresh cinematic material like this.
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Her name is Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) and although she works as a secretary for a London advertising agency, writing is what she’s good at, a fact quickly recognized by the men who run the wartime Ministry of Information, Film Division, circa 1940. Catrin thinks she’s applying for another secretarial position, but instead she’s hired as a scriptwriter to work with a male partner, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), a rather dour young man, to produce a script based on the adventures of a pair of twin sisters who reportedly took the family boat to Dunkirk as part of that famous spontaneous effort to rescue the thousands of British soldiers stranded there. Believing a woman could best deal with other women, Catrin’s bosses send her to interview the twins. But, alas, the story they tell her is not as exciting as the one reported in the newspaper, for in reality the twins’ boat broke down halfway to Dunkirk, forcing them to return home.

Yet, when Catrin reports back to her colleagues, she tells them the more dramatic but false version of the twins’ story, because while not quite “authentic,” it does fit into the “optimistic” framework their bosses demand in order to boost the spirits of the blitz-weary British people. The slightly revised story is quickly accepted and Catrin and Buckley and their other writing partner, the peace-keeping Raymond (Paul Ritter), start brainstorming scenes that they write down on slips of paper to mount on the wall of their cramped and smoke-filled office and consult as needed as they sit at their separate typewriters. Meanwhile, the bosses (Richard E. Grant and Gabriel Baker) have had a brainstorm of their own: to cast the well-known but aging leading man Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) in the role of the twins’ drunken “Uncle Frank,” so he can pilot the boat to France. It’s widely assumed, you see, that even a drunken man is better able to handle a boat than two frail girls.

Nighy’s role in Their Finest has him doing what he does best: As the haughty, put-upon Ambrose, he hilariously steals every scene he’s in, sometimes without saying a word. When Ambrose learns, for instance, that he, a former romantic lead, is being asked to play Uncle Frank as a drunken “shipwreck of a man,” well, the look on his face says it all. Despite a tough-love lecture from his agent, Sammy (Eddie Marsan), Ambrose is convinced he shouldn’t take the role—until, that is, someone has the bright idea of sending conciliatory Catrin to plead the case. She does, he relents, filming begins and the entire cast and crew go on location to Devon.

Nighy is not the only example of perfect casting here; Arterton is spot-on as the indomitable young woman who rises to every challenge, and Claflin nicely underplays the role of male ogre. He gets it exactly right, too, when he’s forced to revise his “typical man” assumptions about the abilities of the opposite sex. Speaking of typical men, Their Finest includes a couple of priceless satirical jokes: Jeremy Irons has a cameo as a pompous Secretary of War who reminds the filmmakers that part of their job is to get America to join the war, and to that end they’re ordered to cast an actual American hero (Jake Lacy) to play one in the movie-within-a-movie. Trouble is, onscreen he’s as emotive as a lump of coal. Once again, it’s up to Catrin to plead with Ambrose, this time to give the kid acting lessons.

Yes, Their Finest repeatedly points out the kind of sexist slights women put up with in the past, but it also shows that even back then some women, like Catrin, refused to accept them. Her severest test comes when her artist-husband Ellis (Jack Huston) wants her to give up her job and come with him to the countryside, so he can paint his dismal pictures in more suitable surroundings. But she loves her job, loves London and does not intend to leave either. Of course, it’s a big help that most of the men who can do what she does have already gone off to war, a point vividly made in this film.

Eventually, Catlin is romantically drawn to Buckley, her writing partner, and he to her, and he slowly and grudgingly admits that she’s much more than a female hack brought in to write “the slop”—as dialogue between females was called back then. He learns that Catrin is a smart and talented young woman and when she makes a suggestion, he’s wise to listen. The feminist angle is also illustrated in the film’s other female characters: Phyl (Rachael Stirling) a smart-ass producer’s assistant, and Sophie (Helen McCrory) sister of Ambrose’s agent, who takes over her brother’s business and is good at it.

Part drama, part comedy, part tragic love story and a whole lot of World War II nostalgia, in the end Their Finest subliminally makes two strong statements. The first, obviously, centers on the vital and often forgotten contribution women have made to the unfolding history of the world. And the other takeaway here concerns the power of movies to inspire and uplift and arouse all sorts of deep emotions. We’re talking about movies on the big screen, that is, which was once the only way movies were seen—as a collective event, when you could sit in the dark and share your joy, your tears, your laughs, your sense of life as a profound experience. Their Finest ends with such a scene—of ordinary people caught up in a common experience, and, wow, what a welcome and powerful affirmation it is.

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