Directed by Lone Scherfig. Starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Helen McCrory, Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, Henry Goodman, Paul Ritter, Jake Lacy, Eddie Marsan, Claudia Jessie, Stephanie Hyam, Jeremy Irons. (2017, R, 117 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 14, 2017
Employing a comfortable blend of drama and comedy, Their Finest also functions as a period piece set during the London Blitz of 1940, a behind-the-scenes movie about the making of movies, and a female-empowerment story about women’s temporary advancement in the commercial workplace while male employees were off fighting World War II. In particular, the art and commerce of propaganda films are scrutinized, along with the production process that attempts to turn muck into magic.
An engaging panoply of characters populates the film, but at its center is the story of Catrin Cole (Arterton), a copywriter who reports for a job at England’s Ministry of Information, only to discover the job is to write “slop” (the dismissive term for women’s dialogue) for the public-service propaganda films the division was churning out at the time. Her introduction to the operation provides many opportunities to show off the marvel of cinematic illusions, as well as the mechanics of how the sausage is made. Adapted from Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, the film might have done well to retain that saucier title with its moviemaking allusion instead of truncating it to sound more Mrs. Miniver-esque.
Catrin learns the ropes of screenwriting from Tom Buckley (Hunger Games’ hunk Claflin, who demonstrates his versatility here), while fending off notes from ministry officials (in this regard, Jeremy Irons proves especially delightful in a cameo appearance). At home, Catrin deals with her husband Ellis (Huston), a painter of bleak cityscapes that are deemed too depressing for exhibition, and whose impoverishment is not assuaged by his wife’s ability to pay for their expenses. A restrained romantic triangle plays out over the course of the film. Almost stealing the whole show is the ever-handy Bill Nighy, who plays Ambrose Hilliard, a past-his-prime actor who hilariously bristles at the insipid, second-string characters his age now forces him to play. Catrin adapts brilliantly to her new working milieu, gradually proving her worth to write more than mere “slop,” while also working strategically to make the picture they’re working on better by doing things like making accommodations with necessary nuisances like “truth” and star egos. Meanwhile, air raids occur daily, and accommodations sometimes have to be made for crew members who haven’t been fortunate to survive the night.
“Authenticity, optimism, and … a dog.” According to the ministry propagandists, these are the attributes the new film must possess. Furthermore, they’ve saddled the film with a handsome but untalented Yank hero (Lacy) in order to help convince the reluctant Americans to enter the war. Lone Scherfig (An Education, Italian for Beginners) directs with a sure hand that keeps this freewheeling enterprise from going too far in any one direction. Their Finest presents a potpourri of characters and angles of view, yet Scherfig keeps all the plates spinning with seeming ease. And though her role may be a bit underwritten, Arterton imbues Catrin with added depth and alacrity. Their Finest may ultimately be the best words to describe the amalgamated work of all participants in this film.