Film Review: Their Finest
Their Finest (2017) Directed by Lone Scherfig
By Belle McIntyre
This charming, smart, funny and sad film is one of those sly concoctions which the Brits do so well. It is filled with deftly defined eccentric characters, a clever story line delivered with equally clever dialog by the talented, well-chosen cast, directed at a brisk pace with a beautifully-realized production which invokes the mood of the time, a mix of patriotic pride mixed with fear, sorrow and dread. It takes place in 1940 in London, which is being bombed by the Germans. The civilian population is being called upon to participate in their own way in the war effort. It is a time of opportunity and obligation for women to step out of their typical roles in domestic life and take on tasks previously dominated by men.
It is into this milieu that Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) finds herself reluctantly thrust, by virtue of some of her previous newspaper work which has caught the eye of one of the executives, Roger Swain (Richard Grant), who tasks her with bringing a women’s point of view to the war effort on the home front in the form of short propaganda films which exhort patriotism and support for the war. Catrin rises to the challenge offered to her to have some relevance of her own, something sadly missing from her relationship with her overbearing artist/partner, Ellis (Jack Huston), which is decidedly one-sided in terms of equality and respect. As the work develops and she interviews actual women to base the stories on, she finds herself as well.
As her confidence and assurance grow along with her evolving skills as a writer of “the woman’s experience”, which has an undeniably paternalistic quality - she learns to assert herself in the pursuit of the truth of that experience as an equally relevant one. Simultaneously she begins to share script-writing responsibilities with her formerly-senior colleague, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). This is a prickly relationship which develops between these two. Tom is pretty much of an introverted, insecure, male chauvinist totally divorced from his emotional life. He reluctantly acknowledges needing her input for the “slop” (the derogatory term for women’s dialog) as a necessary evil. This relationship mirrors Catrin’s domestic situation as well. Necessary, but undervalued and, emphatically, not equal.
Suddenly, all of their prior efforts are ramped up by an edict from the War Minister,(an imperious Jeremy Irons) who is now asking for a full length feature film touting the glories of patriotism and the righteousness of this war with the “women’s angle” as an integral part. To that end Catrin finds a totally inspiring real life story of two sisters and a boat who go to rescue some sailors, casualties of the invasion of Dunkirk. But the war ministry keeps meddling in the film and altering the focus, necessitating numerous drafts and re-writes.
This provides opportunities for much humor as the battle lines on the film replicate the actual war activities. Then the ministry decides that the real purpose the film is to inspire the Yanks to join the war. The only real actor on the project is Ambrose Hilliard, (played to the hilt by Bill Nighy), a former matinee idol who is way beyond his sell-by date but in blissful denial of that reality. In fact he has all of the arrogance and dismissive attitude of someone still relevant, but whose current claim to fame is his role as a detective (Inspector Closeau-ish). He stillbasks in a former glory of which few are still aware. He is thoroughly insufferable on the set and only becomes more impossible as the film tries to accommodate the ridiculous new mandates being imposed by the war office, which include hiring a non-actor who is an American soldier and who is completely clueless as to the nuances of acting. It is wonderfully awkward to watch.
The relationship which develops between Catrin and Tom - who ultimately bond over the absurd demands being imposed by the war office and the endless re-writes - is almost predictable but something we are nonetheless wishing for. No spoilers from me except to say that there is an unexpectedly bittersweet twist which, along with revelations about Catrin’s relationship with Ellis, which lends the film some weight and depth, without which it would have been unalloyed delight. The war experience for those in Europe who lived through the battles on their own soil are always very potent and make for unlikely heroes and villains. It is all served up with blithe lightheartedness and is thoroughly enjoyable.