Director: Lone Scherfig
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Helen McCrory, Eddie Marsan, Jake Lacy, Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant
Special Features: Director’s commentary, Flickers of Hope: Making of Their Finest
Going by the publicity Their Finest (based on the novel Their Finest Hour And A Half by Lissa Evans) looks like another bright and breezy prestige project for British film. However, while it concerns the apparently light-hearted subject matter of making “morally clean, romantically satisfying” propaganda for the war effort, it also manages to evoke the fear and cruelty present in this dark period. The way it pulls off such a subtle balancing act is both surprising and very moving.
Gemma Arteron plays Catrin Cole, a Welsh writer summoned to the Ministry of Information’s Film Division in order to inject some oomph into their short film scripts. She then meets twin sisters who were supposedly involved in the rescue operation at Dunkirk. When it transpires their tale isn’t quite as heroic as expected, she decides to tailor events in a more dramatic fashion. From there she finds herself co-writing a screenplay for a morale-boosting movie alongside mercurial Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Meanwhile Arterton struggles with a half-baked marriage to artist Ellis (Jack Huston) and fading actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) sees the film – The Nancy Starling, named after a boat – as an opportunity to resurrect his career.
There are interesting parallels between Catrin and Ambrose. Being female and old respectively, they find new opportunities whilst young men are away fighting the Nazis. And as their words become reality under the studio lights, Catrin and Tom are drawn closer together in an understated romance. Arterton is terrific and her and Claflin spark off each other nicely. Nighy seems to be having a whale of a time in a part which suits him to a tee, playing to his arch qualities whilst allowing him to subvert his genial image.
The film is populated by diverse and strong characters, from Rachael Stirling’s tough lesbian Ministry exec to Jeremy Irons’ toothsome civil servant. Despite the star power on display, the piece is ensemble-driven, presenting the cast and crew as a microcosm of society. In one sense they exist in a bubble. In another bombs fall several feet away and walls shake as Claflin and Arterton hammer away at their scripts. The movie is also a pleasure to watch and contains numerous warm, funny moments.
The closing scenes, while bleak, are also tinged with hope. Their Finest laughs at the absurdity of the propaganda machine, yet reminds us it was as much a part of the war as the rifles and bullets. Scherfig has brought audiences that rare thing – a story that tugs at the heart with intelligence and which possesses a genuine understanding of what was going on with people at the time.
This review first appeared on THN.