British cinema rarely gets the credit it deserves for the way it’s able to inspire and entertain audiences. Never was that more true than during World War II when London and surrounding areas were being bombarded by German air raids. In response, the British Ministry of Information turned to older filmmakers and crew who hadn’t been called off to the warfront to help create entertainment and inspiration for British citizens during those difficult times.
Based on Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half–adapted here by Gaby Chiappe–this new film from Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (An Education) comes at the perfect time when the discussion about equal pay and treatment of women in the workplace is once again very much at the forefront of conversations. Yet it somehow handles this subject in an impressively evenhanded manner.
Gemma Arterton’s Catrin Cole comes from the world of advertising, hired by the ministry to write “women’s dialogue” (called “slop”) for their thinly-veiled propaganda films, getting paid less than her male writing partner, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Catrin’s husband Ellis (Jack Huston) doesn’t see any point in her working, despite the fact that he is a starving artist barely able to keep a roof over their heads. As Catrin starts to acclimate herself to being an unappreciated screenwriter, she finds a story about two brave twin sisters who take their father’s boat to save soldiers at the battle of Dunkirk.
After convincing the Ministry to turn it into a movie called The Nancy Starling (the name of the boat), Catrin then has her own battle to fight in keeping the focus of the movie on the two young women. The Ministry insists on casting an American soldier (Jake Lacy) with no acting experience in hopes the movie will appeal to the “Yanks” just joining the war. They also cast Bill Nighy’s Ambrose Hilliard, a serious British acting vet who has been struggling late in his career and who begrudgingly agrees to play the girl’s drunken uncle Frank, a comic relief role.
For many reasons, I’ve been a fan of almost everything Gemma Arterton has done since I first saw her in a movie—probably Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla or maybe Quantum of Solace. Maybe it’s because she often comes across as the quintessential British actress– she’s eloquent and charming with a way of capturing women from the previous century. The role of Catrin couldn’t be more perfect for Arterton’s skills at playing a woman you generally are rooting for to get everything she wants out of life. That’s not always the case with Their Finest, because the story still takes place during Britain’s toughest times, and the fact the movie takes place during the bombings is not treated on lightly.
The other key component that helps make Their Finest so enjoyable is the humor Bill Nighy brings to every scene, especially once he gets on set and starts interacting with others, including the American non-actor he is asked to take under his wing. Nighy isn’t just used as comic relief in this movie, though, as he brings some big-time gravitas to a number of scenes when the fact the country is at war has a serious, personal impact on those making the movie.
There’s also an almost obligatory romantic angle to this story, essentially a love triangle between Catrin, Tom, and her husband Ellis, who doesn’t support his wife being off on a movie set surrounded by men even though her wages are paying their rent. It’s an aspect that’s wisely underplayed as to not take away from the purpose of the film, which isn’t just to show that women can do anything men can do, but also to shine a light on the most underappreciated person on a movie set… the writer.
The movie’s best moments are the ones that effectively give you a behind-the-scenes look at what it may have been like making movies during those times. It feels like Scherfig, surrounded by many women on her crew–a subtle counterpoint to the male-heavy British film crews that were the norm–has a good handle on this era of filmmaking, which shows during the “movie within a movie” scenes of a Dunkirk film that’s far smaller and lower budget than the one Christopher Nolan has in store for audiences this summer. (Their Finest also offers an interesting juxtaposition to the mini-series Five Came Back, now streaming on Netflix, which looks at some of the American directors who enlisted in the military and shot WWII footage.)
Their Finest certainly won’t be for everyone, especially those expecting or desiring a serious drama and/or lighter romantic fare from a movie that bounces between the two fairly regularly. It’s certainly one of Scherfig’s best films since An Education, and a movie that feels more relevant and timely than some might expect, yet also one that is also able to take your mind off what’s going on in the real world. In other words, it’s as entertaining as it is inspiring, just like the movie that’s being made in the movie.
Their Finest opens in New York and L.A. on Friday and in other cities over the course of April.