THEIR FINEST

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Lone Scherfig

Stars: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin. Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Jake Lacy, Eddie Marsan, Halen McCrory, Jeremy Irons, Richard E Grant, Henry Goodman, Hubert Burton, Claudie Jeesie, Stephanie Hyam.

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This thoroughly enjoyable WWII drama is set in London at the height of the Blitz. The Ministry of Information and the War Office want to make a propaganda film to keep the people’s morale and spirits up. Just as important though is sending a strong message to the Americans that the British are still in the fight for the long haul.

Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is a secretary who is given work at a film production company to bring a “woman’s touch” to the dialogue for their propaganda film. She meets fellow writer, the taciturn Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin, from Me Before You, etc) and while they don’t initially hit it off or see eye to eye over the emerging role of women in society there is a palpable sexual attraction between them.

Catrin suggests that the filmmakers tackle an inspiring story about a pair of sisters who took their father’s old fishing boat out into rough waters to rescue a handful of sailors from Dunkirk. But as she digs deeper to flesh out the story Catrina learns that the reality is far removed from the story she was trying to tell. Nonetheless the film proceeds.

Brought in to play a vital supporting role is arrogant, narcissistic, chronically self-absorbed veteran actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy, perfectly cast in a role that seems written especially for him). He is none too happy to realise that his days as a romantic leading man are behind him, but he is convinced to take on the role by his manager. To appease the American audiences the producers also bring in a Carl Lundbeck (played by Jake Lacy, from Carol, How To Be Single, etc), a US RAF pilot and war hero who has no acting experience whatsoever. Hilliard works with Jake to try and help him deliver his lines on cue and deliver a reasonable performance.

Their Finest is based on the novel Their Finest Hour And A Half, which was written by Lissa Evans. The novel has been adapted to the screen by Gabby Chiappe, and this is the debut feature script for the writer who hails from a background in television drama. Chiappe ensures a nice balance between dramatic and humorous moments throughout. The film offers up a look at how society was changed by the war, as women were being offered jobs that were once considered out of their reach. Their Finest addresses the role played by women in the British Film Industry during the 1940s, a subject that has rarely been explored on screen before.

The director is Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (An Education, etc) and she keeps things moving at a fairly genial pace throughout, although there are a few darker moments. This is a wonderfully nuanced and affecting drama with some realistic dialogue. Technical contributions are also excellent, and some great production design from Alice Normington brings to life war torn London with its bombed-out streets and people sheltering in underground railway stations. This is an atmospheric production that captures both the hardships and the uncertainty of life during wartime.

Scherfig draws the best out of an impressive ensemble cast. Arterton brings a strength and fierce intelligence to her performance. There is a biting quality to the dialogue between Arterton and Claflin, but there is also a palpable sexual chemistry between the pair. But this is Nighy’s film and he chews the scenery shamelessly and steals every scene with a wonderful performance that ranks up there with his best work. There are small roles for the likes of Jeremy Irons, Richard E Grant and Eddie Marsan.

But Their Finest is at its best when the film within the film structure takes hold. The film delves into the filmmaking process itself, and we gain some great insight into the filmmaking techniques of the 40s when all the effects had to be achieved on set and in camera (this was well before the era of digital effects and CGI). The way in which the filmmakers recreate the scenes of the Dunkirk evacuation on a limited budget and with a small cast is quite amusing.

★★★☆

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