Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Paul Ritter, Rachel Stirling, Helen McCrory, Richard E. Grant, Henry Goodman, Eddie Marsan, Jake Lacy, Hubert Burton, Jeremy Irons, Claudia Jessie, Stephanie Hyam
MPAA Rating: (for some language and a scene of sexuality)
Running Time: 1:57
Release Date: 4/7/17 (limited); 4/14/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 13, 2017
Their Finest easily could have been one of those pandering, self-congratulatory movies about the importance of making movies. To a certain degree, it is one of those movies, but the screenplay by Gaby Chiappe (based on Lissa Evans' novel Their Finest Hour and a Half) possesses just enough of the bite of reality to keep the vanity at bay.
It's the story of making a movie during the Blitz of England, which would seem to be among the lower priorities of patriotic Brits at the time. Buildings are being turned to rubble. Streets are littered with the craters of bomb explosions. People are dying in their homes and in the streets, and everyone runs to the subway system to seek shelter whenever the sirens blare—but only if the watch spots a bombing run coming.
That's the backdrop, and the idea of making a feel-good movie about some improbable story about the rescue of soldiers at Dunkirk, of all places, seems trivial. Life must continue, though, and if it's going to go on as close to normal as possible under the circumstances, the British government figures they should give a morale boast to the millions of people going to the movies every week.
The year is 1940, and Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) needs to make some money to help support herself and her starving-artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a wounded veteran who paints the sort of dark, expressionistic work of the horrors of war that nobody wants to buy at this time. She's a writer, and she gets a job with the Ministry of Information's film division.
Catrin begins writing scripts for informational reels aimed at women, offering helpful tips about keeping quiet on military matters, lest the enemy be listening (The ministry has the short scenes play in between the newsreel and the feature, when they have the audience "trapped" in their seats). There's an air of chauvinism to the job, since, as Catrin points out, they don't hire a dog to write "bark" whenever a movie calls for a dog. The truth of it gets worse when she's assigned to a feature film. She learns that the industry has dubbed any dialogue from female characters as "slop."
The feature is to be the story of twin sisters who traveled on their father's boat to Dunkirk to rescue a family friend. When they returned, they had a boat filled with soldiers whom they had saved. The head screenwriter is Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), who avoided conscription by the good word of a higher-up in the ministry. Catrin will have an uncredited role writing the "slop."
There are a few complications, such as the fact that the sisters' story was fabricated to save face (The boat's engine failed five miles out) and maintained because it was such an uplifting account of bravery. Catrin learns this first, but she gives a glowing recap of the tale. She spends the rest of the movie trying to highlight the real bravery of the twins in the movie, despite her male co-workers insisting that the men in the movie do all the heroic deeds.
Does it really matter that the story's a lie? When the ministry and the producer get a hold of it, they add a love story, an American journalist (to help sway opinion about the war across the pond), and, of course, a dog that the hero rescues from a German sniper. With all this appeal, the producer insists that the ministry give them the budget to shoot in glorious Technicolor.
Much of the film deals with the process of making the movie-within-the-film, and it's quite enjoyable material. There's plenty of back-and-forth between the scriptwriting office and the ministry—of trying to create melodrama that functions as a narrative against the restrictions of ensuring that there's no negative connotations for the war effort (When the screenwriters try to fit the engine failure into the plot, the ministry demands that it be altered, lest anyone think that British engine manufacturing is inferior). The actors are assembled, including a past-his-prime Ambrose Hilliard (a fantastic Bill Nighy, who has the rare ability to communicate the very essence of a character with a single look) and an American pilot flying with the RAF named Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy). Carl's first attempt to act for the camera—all smiles and no pauses between lines—adds another obstacle.
Director Lone Scherfig deftly captures the period, in terms of the filmmaking process and techniques (There's an amusing gag involving a matte painting of Dunkirk superimposed over a calm English beach), as well as the look and atmosphere of dread in the background. The reality of the bigger picture helps to keep the film in check. As entertaining as the behind-the-scenes stuff is, there is a real question as to the movie's purpose and significance in the face of war.
The film's story doesn't exploit the terror of the Blitz, although that means some of the film's later melodramatic turns have to be devised out of unrelated tragedy. In particular, there's a late development that seems to come out of nowhere, even though the same result could have been achieved easily with the fact of the bombings. One can understand the impulse to keep the movie-making and actual war as separate as possible, though, and despite the contrivance, the ultimate emotional effect essentially sticks.
The point is that Their Finest does the work to make its central argument—that movies can and do matter in the grander scheme of things. The film is funny and affecting, and the movie-within-the-movie looks pretty decent, too.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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