Director: Lone Scherfig
Writers: Gaby Chiappe (screenplay), Lissa Evans
Stars: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy
By all accounts, Danish director Lone Scherfig has built a career on niche British films and this continues with the period drama ‘Their Finest’. It’s a wonderful little film that manages to encapsulate the nerve shredding experience of Blitz era London with the perfect blend of comedy and romance. Anchored by the excellent Gemma Arterton, who plays a young Welsh woman, recruited by the Ministry of Information to write believable woman’s dialogue for propaganda films. This turns out to be perfect opportunity for her to make her mark in the male dominated film industry, whilst the British government does its best to coax the US into the conflict.
Catrin is struggling to keep her moody ‘artist’ partner Ellis (Jack Hustin) in their quaint flat when we first meet her and is given the impossible to refuse offer of writing “slop” for the principle sum of two pounds per week. The sexist ridden industry she thrusts herself into is illuminated early on by the bureaucratic Roger’s (Richard E. Grant) quip of “Obviously we can’t pay you the same as the chaps”. She’s a strong willed lady, our Catrin however and decides to seize the opportunity to help write a potential feature length film on the events of Dunkirk with both hands. This comes with the added benefits of more pay, something she has to request mind and the beginning of a budding relationship between her and lead writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin).
There’s just one problem. The twin Starling sisters from Southend, who the films events are largely based upon, didn’t actually go to Dunkirk. Encountering a mechanical problem five miles off the coast of England, they were towed back by a tug boat full of troopers, and ashamed of the truth, forced to go along with their tale of heroism. This of course, doesn’t change a great deal for Catrin or even the other two writers (blissfully unaware of this minor oversight at this point), as they seek to embellish the story with some additional details and plot points to make it more interesting to British viewers. Whilst a trip to Whitehall to see the Secretary of War played in a short cameo by Jeremy Irons forces them to include a hapless US/Danish soldier to humorous effect during the films production.
The best addition to the now embellished story comes with the Uncle Frank character played by the aging, cynical actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy). His interactions throughout the film are absolute gold and his dialogue is perfectly delivered in the usual, polite, deadpan manner. Be it with his agent Sammy (Eddie Marsens), his sister Sophie (Helen McCrory) and Catrin herself. I love Nighy, admittedly, but he was a real standout in a film that had a very strong cast. Gemma Arterton was by far the strongest performer on show though, threatening to be outshine by several strong male performances throughout, she fought them each off, perhaps by virtue of sheer screen time alone to deliver an absolutely fantastic portrayal. Whilst Claflin was fantastic as the often surly, but likeable Buckley.
I mentioned earlier that Scherfig balanced many elements, including drama, comedy and romance, so too did she balance the harrowing effects of wartime Britain with the almost bittersweet opportunity afforded her female protagonist. As London and the world as a whole suffered from the consequences of the war, she benefitted directly from it. Apart from her losing her flat to the blitz which was a bit of drag. Several times the film would cut to air raids occurring, not shying away from the after effects either and this really cut through what for the most part was a fairly airy and upbeat affair. Whilst it’s a very clear ode to the film industry of the 1940s (there’s a funny moment with a matte painting), it also features a serious reflection and message on the frankly unacceptable treatment of women in those days.
I loved so many things about this film. It had an abundance of humorous, witty dialogue; a the lovely, infectious score; beautiful period costumes and sets; an engrossing middle act following their struggle to have the film produced with some nice romantic elements; some real nice moments of camaraderie involving the crew on the sets of the film within a film and a quite tragic, bittersweet ending that once again saved the film from becoming too predictable and soppy. One scene near the end in particular, when Catrin finally goes to watch the film in a packed theatre was beautiful and perfectly illustrated the power of film, the way it boosted the morale of people during WWII and the real combined effort (outside of the conflict and within) it took to defeat the Nazis.
I throughly, thoroughly enjoyed this little film and wouldn’t hesitate in recommending it. It’s very well written, has a bit of everything, including some fantastic performances from a very British centric cast.