Their Finest (2017) STX Entertainment/Comedy-Drama RT: 117 minutes Rated R (some language, a scene of sexuality) Director: Lone Scherfig Screenplay: Gaby Chiappe Music: Rachel Portman Cinematography: Sebastian Blenkov Release date: April 14, 2017 (US) Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Helen McCrory, Eddie Marsan, Jake Lacy, Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, Henry Goodman, Jeremy Irons, Paul Ritter, Claudia Jessie, Stephanie Hyam, Michael Marcus, Gordon Brown.
Rarely has a title been as fitting as Their Finest, a dramedy about the making of a propaganda war film in WWII-era England. It’s easily director Lone Scherfig’s finest work since 2009’s An Education. That film, which focused on a British schoolgirl in the 60s, is largely considered Carey Mulligan’s break-out role. Their Finest stars Gemma Arterton who’s already been in a fair amount of movies including Quantum of Solace (as Strawberry Fields), Prince of Persia and the awful Clash of the Titans remake. Nevertheless, I think this will the film that really puts this talented actress on the map. She plays Catrin Cole, a woman who gets a job writing propaganda war movies for the Ministry of Information. Along the way, she finds her own voice. Although we’ve seen this same sort of thing before (i.e. a woman gaining independence), it can still be made compelling in the right hands and with the right approach to the material. Their Finest hits both marks.
Catrin, renamed Catherine by her artist “husband” Ellis (Huston, Ben-Hur in last year’s remake) so as not to call attention to her originally coming from Wales, applies for what she thinks is a secretarial position at the Ministry of Information’s film division. What the job actually entails is writing “slop” (dialogue for female characters) for war-related shorts. The minister (Grant, Withnail & I) is looking for a project that will raise his country’s sagging spirits or, as he calls it, “authenticity with optimism”. A story in the newspaper about two sisters who steal their father’s boat to aid in the Dunkirk rescue operation seems to fit the bill. Catrin is sent to interview the twin sisters at their home where they tell her that the papers may have exaggerated (okay, lied) a bit. As we all know, there are two versions of the truth: (1) the real truth (what actually happened) and (2) the reel truth (that which makes for a better movie). Guess which version Catrin’s colleagues decide to go with?
Catrin is recruited to write the script alongside Tom Buckley (Claflin, Me Before You), a fastidious chap who has to put his ego in check when he realizes that his co-worker has much more to offer than writing slop. Before long, they develop romantic feelings for each other. Catrin is also tasked with keeping co-star Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy, Love Actually), an aging actor who has a hard time accepting that he’s no longer a young man capable of headlining a profitable picture, on board with the project. She and her colleagues also have to deal with outside inference from government higher-ups including one official (Irons in a brief cameo) insisting that they add an American character to boost the picture’s appeal in the US. Carl Lundbeck (Lacy, Obvious Child), a war hero who shot down a total of 26 German planes, can hardly be considered an actor. He has the impossibly handsome veneer of a matinee idol but the acting chops of a piece of driftwood. He’s also not too bright. Ambrose reluctantly accepts the role of mentor (at Catrin’s request) to the young untalented lad.
Much of Their Finest is funny, especially the scenes of the propaganda film in production, but it has a dark serious edge to it. This is England during wartime meaning bombings and frightened people taking shelter in subway stations during air raids. Anybody could die at any time. Any encounter could conceivably be the last time you see this person alive. The simple act of walking down the street is a risky venture. In one scene, Catrin discovers the bloodied body of a young woman in the rubble of a destroyed department store just moments after nearly being blown to kingdom come by the explosion. The depictions of these wartime horrors are both realistic and harrowing yet Their Finest is anything but bleak.
As a lifelong movie geek, I loved the parts that showed the propaganda movie being made. It’s interesting to see how they achieved certain effects back in the 40s. It’s humorous to see how the makers compensate for Lundbeck’s lack of acting skills. It’s also interesting to see the effect the movie has on the public once it hits cinemas. I could watch this kind of thing all day and never get bored.
Nighy is terrific as the aging actor still riding the wave of fame from a series of detective movies he made many years earlier. People still recognize him as that character and he plays right along. Deep down, he’s alone and miserable, his closest friend being his longtime agent Sammy (Marsan, The World’s End) who never goes anywhere without his dog. SPOILER ALERT! There comes a point when Sammy is no longer around and his sister Sophie (McCrory, The Queen) takes over as his agent. She’s a tough one, that Sophie. She’s not about to let her client drown in his own self-pity and sorrow. She tells him in no uncertain terms that he must take the role he’s offered in the propaganda movie if he wants to keep his career going.
In Their Finest, the ministry officials talk about authenticity. They could very well be talking about the movie they’re in. Everything looks, sounds and feels authentic to the time. A scene where Catrin is denied a cup of tea because the water in her flat is shut off is representative of how the war deprived citizens of even the smallest of pleasures. The clothes, cars, burnt-out building and interiors are right out of the early 40s. So is the music. Nighy’s character sings a beautiful rendition of “Will You Go, Lassie, Go” that gets to everybody. The love story between Catrin and Tom is nicely handled. Before you go thinking she’s an adulteress, she’s keeping secret the true nature of her relationship to Ellis. Overall, Their Finest is a fine movie. Scherfig strikes a nice balance between funny and serious. It’s sad yet optimistic. This is one of those movies worth seeking out. It’s one of the season’s finest films.