Their Finest follows the progress of a team of London-based screenwriters working on a propaganda film during the blitz. Funny, stirring and hugely enjoyable.
Director Lone Scherfig brings a light touch to a dark setting in Their Finest, which follows the progress of a team of London-based screenwriters working on a propaganda film during the blitz.
Copywriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is offered a lowly, poorly paid position in the screenwriting team writing the “slop” (the industry term for female dialogue!). Her husband is a struggling artist and they need the income, so she accepts the position, albeit against his wishes.
Witheringly witty and cynical lead scriptwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin) is intimidating and cuts Catrin no slack, but she shows flair and soon proves herself more than capable of matching it with the boys. She contributes the basic storyline of the screenplay after interviewing twin sisters about their part in the Dunkirk rescue.
The creative process comes in for some wryly amusing treatment as the writing team twists the sisters’ rather dull account into something far more dramatic and screen-worthy. After initially protesting, Catrin too finds herself paying scant regard to the facts, and contributes some key creative embellishments as the crew knocks up a stirring narrative in line with their propagandist brief.
This includes writing in a part for painfully vain ageing star Ambrose Hilliard (hammed up a treat by Bill Nighy). Ambrose assumes he’ll be playing a swashbuckling heroic role, but is indignant to learn that the writers have far less glorious things in store for his character. Catrin saves the day, suggesting a change to the narrative that at once appeases poor old Ambrose, ratchets up the sentiment quotient and fans the flames of patriotism.
With shooting about to commence, the Brit ministry dumps a last minute crisis on the screenwriters with a directive that to encourage the American war effort the characters should include an American hero. A dumb blonde all-American hunk (Jack Huston) is plucked from the US navy to play the role. He can’t act for nuts, which makes for some fun moments.
While there’s a strong sense of the period, the horrors of the blitz are only hinted at. Bombs thud in the background, rooms shake and plaster dust showers down – standard stuff, but enough to have you wishing the writers, too absorbed in their work to pay much heed, would hurry up and get to the shelters. There’s a well-managed street scene of an air raid that is jolting, but avoids confronting the viewer with the grisly aftermath. And in a romanticised piece like this, that’s fine.
Besides, the main focus here is not the war, but Catrin’s struggle to discover her strengths as a writer and person. Her story is essentially one of female emancipation, an unforeseen side-effect of the war that will fundamentally change society in the years to come. As one of the minor female character remarks: “A lot of men are scared we won’t go back into our boxes when [the war] is over.”
There are a couple of flaws. There’s an unsurprising (and unnecessary) love triangle, and towards the end, a narrative misstep that is bemusing, since the writing is otherwise pretty durned terrif. I won’t elaborate cos that’d be spoiling.
The superb performances more than compensate for these minor gripes, with Atherton and Claflin leading the way and a perfectly cast Bill Nighy excelling as a comic foil with an occasionally serious side.
Their Finest is funny, stirring and all-round hugely enjoyable. If you loved the likes of An Education (Scherfig’s outstanding feature debut), Made in Dagenham and Suffragette, you’ll find plenty to like here. When the Brits get these period pieces right, no one does ‘em better.
Australian release date: Their Finest in cinemas from 20 April.
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