Their Finest, 2016.
Directed by Lone Scherfig.
Starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Richard E Grant, Eddie Marsan, Jake Lacy and Helen McCrory.
In the days after The Blitz in World War II, The Ministry Of Information recruits copywriter Catrin (Gemma Arterton) to work on scripts and give their propaganda films a feminine touch. As she immerses herself in the job, and one particular film about Dunkirk, her confidence grows and she wins the respect of her colleagues – and one aging movie star who will only discuss his lines with her.
There are moments when a line of dialogue virtually sits up and begs to be noticed. Not because it’s especially good, but because it’s laden with irony that nobody spotted when the film was being made. In Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest, Sam Claflin has the dubious honour of delivering it. As the senior script editor in the Ministry Of Information’s propaganda unit, he considers the love people have for the movies, as a form of escape from the hardships of World War II. And then he wonders if he’s given his audience something worthy of an hour and a half of their time.
Since it comes roughly half way into the film, the audience are probably asking themselves the same thing – if they did earlier. Because this is a film that has a huge amount going for it – a good story, a top notch British cast, a strong sense of period and a director familiar with the British psyche – but falls short of making the most of them. It’s a comedy/drama, with a gentle but perceptive sense of humour, but it’s also been described as a rom-com. It isn’t. Yes, romance plays a part in the later stages, but it’s actually one of the film’s biggest weaknesses, an unconvincing, near-superfluous bolt-on between two people who appear total opposites.
Worse still, there are scenes where the film flounders around in the doldrums, struggling to get out and this gives it a frustratingly uneven feel. It’s at those times that you get the ominous feeling that it could have been a lot better. Equally, there are times when it does work, winning you over with a large helping of thoroughly British charm. And it works so well that you long for it to be more consistent.
That strong cast is full of familiar faces and names – Jeremy Irons, Richard E Grant, Eddie Marsan – but only some of them get a real chance to spread their acting wings. Helen McCrory is an absolute knock-out as the sister of Bill Nighy’s agent who takes when her brother dies in an air raid and turns out to have a much better business brain – and a soft spot for Nighy’s past-his-best actor. Inevitably, Nighy steals scene after scene, especially in the propaganda movie where his character delivers a performance akin to a thick slice of honey roast. And he film also mimics one feature of the feature for the Ministry Of Information. It creates an American character and imports a US actor to play him. For the piece of propaganda, it was an effort to persuade the Americans to become involved in The War, for Their Finest it’s more likely a pitch for US distribution. The actor concerned is Jake Lacy, who gives a great comedy turn as a war hero with zero acting aptitude and a big toothy grin as his only way of disguising it.
This is Scherfig’s third look on the trot at British manners and social attitudes and it’s this side of the film that hits consistent bulls’ eyes. After An Education and The Riot Club, she’s taken on a different period of UK social history, one where women are doing what had previously been men’s work but are paid less. Because they’re women. The sighs of disapproval rippled around the cinema as the men on the screen accepted this as the norm. It’s another instance of women being told that they should know their place and stick to it. Catrin’s job as a “slop” writer, a demeaning title if ever there was one, is another: it means she writes dialogue purely for women characters, which is viewed as having little in the way of substance.
As a whole, Their Finest manages to stay on the right side of having some substance of its own – but only by a hair’s breadth. It’s charming, nostalgic and avoids being artificial or cloying. To answer Claflin’s question, it’s worth an hour and a half of your time.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★