“As one of my agents said once, ‘Boy you don’t make it easy for yourself Andy!’” Andrew Fleming Interview, ‘Ideal Home’ (THN)

Out today is Ideal Home, a comedy-drama starring Steve Coogan and Paul Rudd as Erasmus and Paul. This gay couple’s lives are turned upside down by the arrival of a little boy (Jack Gore), who it turns out is Erasmus’s grandson.

The writer/director of the movie is Andrew Fleming, a filmmaker who doesn’t stand still when it comes to his craft. Speaking of which, one of his best-known films is The Craft (1996). He also helmed Threesome (1994), Nancy Drew (2007) and the remake of The In-Laws with Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks (2003).

We sat down with him to chat about his eclectic career and how he brought this non-typical family story to the screen…

THN: Where did the story come from?

Andrew Fleming: It kind of came from a couple of different places. I outlined a script that featured Paul and Erasmus, but it didn’t quite work so I put it in a drawer. And then somebody suggested I write a script about a gay couple with a child and because I was living in a situation where my partner had a son from a previous relationship, a marriage to a woman… this was a while ago when it wasn’t so common to see a male couple with strollers, so I kind of migrated the fiction of these 2 guys with our home life. It’s not an autobiography but it’s informed by the truth of what happened in my life.

How did Steve Coogan come to be cast?

The character was written as English and I thought ‘I know someone who’s English and funny’ so I showed him it and he really liked it. So we worked on it for a while, and he’d give me ideas and ask questions. I’m good friends with Steve and we have a rapport. When it came to who Paul would be, literally the first person we thought of was Paul Rudd and Steve sent it to Paul because he knew him and Paul took a liking to it. It’s not that exciting a story…

It sounds okay to me…

I mean it’s not filled with rejections and weird happenstance, it kind of just happened!

How did you find Jack Gore?

Strangely enough I had worked with him a number of times before. I did some episodes of a TV series with him when he was 7 years old. He was good but he was 7, so he was running around being 7! I worked on a TV pilot with him after and found out he was a really smart kid, a brilliant young man. We did a wide search and he turned out to be the best choice. I was always rooting for him but it was a group decision.

Tell me about how Paul Rudd and Steve Coogan worked on their onscreen relationship.

Steve and Paul are fans of each others. They would do their work and then when we were lighting the next scene they would go to the side of the set and gab and laugh. I think they had a great time working together… I know they did.

You mentioned the characters started off in another script. Could that become a follow up?

It was a non-story, a premise lacking a story. It needed something, the catalyst of a child showing up. So there’s nothing there, but that happens a lot. I did another movie called Dick, and the two teenage girls in that (played by Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) came from, I think, 3 different stories into that story. You know if you really love a character and the story isn’t working you can put them in a different circumstance and make something good out of it.

Looking back over your career so far, it’s been quite varied. Because Hollywood is about pigeonholing people has that been difficult to maintain?

Well as one of my agents said once, ‘Boy you don’t make it easy for yourself Andy!’ I just don’t want to make the same movie twice. You get up very early, around 4.30 on the Monday. You don’t do it for the money. I do it to make something new and challenge myself. All of the best filmmakers I admire have tried all different types of genres.

What’s been the most creatively satisfying movie you’ve worked on?

With Ideal Home I’ve personalized it more than my other movies, apart from one I made a long time ago called Threesome. It’s very much a big slice of my life and it’s been satisfying and also a little terrifying to put it out there because when people judge it, they’re judging me!

 

This interview first appeared on THN

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Twin Peaks: A Lynching Part Two (Strange Skins Digital)

Time has no meaning in Twin Peaks, so the second part of this review concerns the whopping prospect of Parts Five to Eighteen. By the fifth instalment my initial shock at having the series back in the first place had worn off and I’d acclimatized to what I was watching. Most of what I witnessed will have me scratching the old noggin till my dying day but that’s alright – the show is above all a mystery. While David Lynch and Mark Frost were kind enough to throw some answers in our general direction, the overall impression was one of profound frustration. Just like getting to the end of the previous run in fact. That’s the way it’s always been and it made sense that’s what happened this time round.

The best way to analyze fourteen hours or so of Lynch-infused weirdness is to look at the broad sweep, so here goes. When initially announced, The Return was going to be nine episodes. After what appeared to be some behind the scenes wrangling, with the director leaving for a while following arguments over the budget, that number doubled. This creative bump in the road appears to have been responsible for the season’s main weakness: it’s padded heavier than a wall in a busy asylum.

Many of the new characters have arcs that go precisely nowhere, notably the “history repeating itself” narrative of Becky (Amanda Seyfried) and her abusive, drug-crazed beau Steven (Caleb Landry Jones). We’d watched Becky’s mother Shelley (Mädchen Amick) suffer at the hands of the infamous Leo Johnson in the previous century. Then when it was revealed Shelley’s former lover Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) was Becky’s father it seemed an intriguing plotline could be on the cards. Aside from histrionics, it transpired nothing much happened and Steven killed himself in the woods, as if to polish matters off in anticipation of the finale. Even Amick’s association with mystical gangster Red (Balthazar Getty) didn’t get more than a cursory mention. Still, at least we got the unexpected sight of Bobby being a trusted member of the Twin Peaks police force, a distinct contrast to the wayward young man we left in the Nineties. The Return’s juiciest subplot, that of Audrey (Sherilyn Fenn) being stuck in a hallucinatory haze, ended abruptly with no further explanation, though in fairness this was the moment that best evoked the Peaks of old.

These seemingly random elements were what marked the third season apart from its predecessors. Whereas previously Twin Peaks was a conventional soap opera with an artisan approach, it’s since evolved into a Lynchian video installation. There appeared to be little of Frost’s personality in the mix (for that read his novel The Secret History of Twin Peaks). Yet despite this break from the established format, the creators expected viewers to remember things that happened twenty-five years ago. The resolution of the love triangle between Big Ed (Everett McGill), Norma (Peggy Lipton) and Nadine (Wendy Robie) had been a major part of the classic series. In this version we see Ed and Nadine separately and it’s never shown that they’re married until she walks up to him and announces he’s free to marry Norma. A great release for the fans but also a resolution with no build up, and surely one that would leave non-aficionados wondering what the fuss was about.

Lynch is also overly-preoccupied with sensation, inserting at least one thing a week to do with bodily fluids. The protracted appearances of Jay Aaseng’s drooling prisoner, who repeats everyone’s words back to them, was a prime example of this. A repetition of extremes, from vomiting to characters being subjected to cruel ordeals, became almost par for the course and these moments lost their impact as a result.

I mentioned in my previous piece how the mythology of the Black Lodge had been expanded upon in Season 3 and this is one area where the production truly soared. Frost and Lynch introduced the concept of “tulpas” with egg-like skin who took the place of human beings and in Part Eight gave us an atomic-powered look at how Killer Bob came to be and the conception of Laura Palmer to apparently counter this evil presence. The spectacle of this particular episode, which began with Evil Coop being revived by blackened lumberjacks and ended with an amphibious moth crawling into a little girl’s mouth was quite simply one of the most jaw-dropping episodes of TV in years. The writers cleverly gave fans what they wanted with one hand, while adding a whole other layer of ambiguity with the other.

Another aspect I welcomed was the focus on Kyle MacLachlan’s journey from one dimension to the next. Lynch amply provided his friend with not one but three roles to sink his teeth into and former pretty boy MacLachlan rose to the challenge. The “Dougie Jones” plot definitely filled the hours rather than being anything rewarding but Naomi Watts’ excellent performance as Janey-E made it worth the slog. Also introduced in this section were the Mitchum Brothers (Robert Knepper and Jim Belushi). I didn’t see the point in the bimbo-flanked crime bosses at first – the narrative was awash with the underworld anyway. But gradually I warmed to them and they took their place among the ranks of memorable Peaks personalities.

I was surprised that I didn’t refer to Angelo Badalamenti’s music in the first part of this review. However I realized it wasn’t an essential piece of the puzzle in the way it was before. Badalamenti provided a richly-textured muzak for the soap incarnation of the show. Here he scored a different beast. He had his moments, Part Eight being a standout in its mix of the ominous and divine. On the whole his work was overshadowed by the musical showcases at the Roadhouse, which were properly eclectic. Original singer Julee Cruise got short shrift but Chromatics best floated my boat with their electronic dreamscapes.

The finale annoyed me at first. Part Seventeen delivered a reasonably satisfying reunion between Cooper and the gang, by way of a Cockney wearing a gardening glove. Jake Wardle played that difficult role and while he gave it his all I couldn’t quite get my head around this plot device in human form. As for Part Eighteen, well when the credits rolled I felt cheated. Then I started thinking about what I’d seen. By the time I’d mulled it over I kind of loved it. Lynch directed an abstract retread of the Season Two denouement, only this time with our Special Agent being seriously displaced. The low key yet chilling final moments saw him and an alternate Laura trapped not only in another dimension but one not far removed from our own, and all the more dangerous for it.

Twin Peaks: The Return was simultaneously a non event and also the biggest event of the streaming generation. It disappointed and stirred in equal measure. Its audacious visuals and cerebral savagery will perhaps never be replicated. I’d love to have a Season Four, but if this is the last we see of the town I grew to love so much, then so be it. It’s a bonus I never anticipated and I thank Lynch and Frost for making the titanic effort to revisit this extraordinary terrain.

 

This article first appeared in Strange Skins Digital

“My next picture could be a remake of Howard’s End…” Greg McLean ‘Jungle’ Interview (THN)

Out to own is Jungle, the knuckle-gnawing true story of adventurer Yossi Ghinsberg. Ghinsberg was stranded in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, where he faced a terrifying ordeal battling the elements for his very survival.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Yossi in the movie, which is directed by Wolf Creek‘s Greg McLean. We sat down for a chat about raging rapids, rugged Radcliffes and the inhospitable climes of Wolf Creek Season 2…

THN: The film is something of a departure for you. What drew you to the project?

Greg McLean: I wanted to make a movie where people were trying to save a life rather than take it. (Laughs) A lot of my films have been horror films. I thought the true story was incredible, it was very inspiring. When I first read it I thought what these guys did and how it happened was very moving and it was something worth trying to capture on film and share it with audiences.

What involvement did Yossi Ghinsberg have with the production?

He was very involved. He came down to Colombia and Australia where we shot it and was there the whole time. We spent the day together at first, getting to know each other and talking through everything in great detail. Then we went through the script line by line with me saying “Okay this is what the script says. What actually happened?” Just so I knew that going into the film I was completely armed with everything I could possibly get to give us the reality. Then often I would change things, back to his book. Because the book is a virtual telling of the story, obviously from Yossi’s point of view. But it’s a very clear telling of what went down. I was trying to be as accurate as I could.

How did Daniel Radcliffe come to be cast?

Someone mentioned Daniel and we looked at the movies he’d been doing. He’d been giving some fantastic performances and was seeking out different roles. He loved the character and what the movie presented as an acting challenge. He’s someone who’s looking for challenging projects and this was one!

What scenes were the most difficult to film?

The scene with the guys stuck on the rock and then going down the rapids was pretty massive. It was really dangerous, we didn’t have a green screen. We were clinging to a rock in a raging river, I was just very, very anxious about that. Because if you fell in that water you wouldn’t be coming out. I didn’t want to lose actors in that river or I’d’ve been in trouble! (Laughs) That was hard work. It was necessary to make it feel as real as we could, short of chucking them in the water and seeing if they survived or not.

How long did you have to spend in the jungle each day?

The sun would come up, then we’d work all day till it went down. We’d rehearse then drive up to the mountains, to these villages around Bogotá (Colombian capital). It was a three hour bus drive along these tiny little roads. We’d get up before dawn and go out to these remote locations. It was fairly crazy! Pretty rugged.

If you were shooting there again, is there anything you would do differently?

No, we were pretty lucky with our cast and crew, they were all incredible troupers, throwing themselves into everything. For such a complex, challenging shoot I think we did pretty damned well to get out of it all alive with no casualties. The opportunity for danger was around us all the time, especially with the rafting sequence.

Your movies are generally set in inhospitable environments. Will you ever make something set in, say, a coffee shop?

I really want to! My goal is to make a movie set in like a Downton Abbey-style location. That would be my dream. (Laughs) I do love being outdoors and using the elements to tell stories but I certainly am drawn to telling other stories as well. So maybe my next picture could be a remake of Howard’s End or something.

That I would like to see.

I could throw in some zombies to beef it up a bit.

Indeed! Crucially, what did Yossi and the guys make of the finished product?

Yossi and Kevin saw it and loved it. They thought that the portrayal of them was really accurate. I think they were impressed with it. My intention was to tell their story as truthfully as I knew how to. What those guys went through was pretty amazing and I think they were happy with the result.

What was it like working with James Gunn on The Belko Experiment, which was a long-gestating project?

That was a script he wrote many years ago when he was first starting out. Everyone loved it but they were too scared of it. He was called about it later on but was busy doing Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2 so he went out to look for a director. I pitched to him and he really loved it. He’s a great collaborator. He’s basically a film fanatic, which I am as well. I think being a director himself he was cool in terms of what that role needs. If you gel with someone you kind of just leave them alone. You help them but ultimately you let them make the movie.

I’d like to move on briefly to talk about Wolf Creek. What can you tell us about Season 2?

It’s a completely new storyline from scratch. It starts a bigger story arc that may continue if we go into a new season. The basic concept is about an international tours coach in the Outback. They encounter Mick Taylor and all sorts of craziness happens from there! It’s a character-based thriller and incredibly fun.

Mick Taylor is a well-developed character, which you’ve expanded from movies into TV and also books. What is the secret behind his longevity?

There’s the true crime element… a lot of it is drawn from true life cases. His psychology is fairly accurate to real serial killers from Australia. Also I feel people are fascinated by the nature of evil and he is a purely evil character. We’re drawn to try and understand that. Plus he’s a character audiences love to hate!

 

This interview appeared on THN.

‘Verónica’ Review (Frightfest, THN)

A psychologist (Arcelia Ramírez) lives in a secluded mountain location, having sworn off treating patients for good. However when a call comes in asking her to see Verónica (Olga Segura), she decides to try and crack the mystery surrounding this confrontational yet sensitive figure. The professional thinks this is a getting to know you exercise. Verónica believes that as walking stereotypes they know each other already. From there a battle of wits unfolds, rapidly developing into something more intimate and unnerving.

Shot digitally with stark black and white cinematography and showcasing a chilly, fog-strewn landscape, it’s clear we’re in safe albeit sinister hands with directors Carlos Algara and Alejandro Martinez-Beltran. Together with writer Tomas Nepomuceno they’ve conjured a classic thriller scenario. The psychologist’s house with its exposed brick walls contrasts with the great outdoors and its connection to primal instinct and rebirth. Segura is quite hypnotic as she and Ramírez test each others’ boundaries. There’s a chemistry between them that keeps the tension simmering, alongside Daniel Wohl’s pulsating score.

The helmers build the intense atmosphere gradually and when things get erotic it makes sense rather than feeling exploitative. “Chaos makes for better honey,” Verónica remarks as she describes the habits of insects in a sequence so sweltering you could probably fry an egg on it. The filmmakers keep the visual trickery to a minimum, letting the action do the talking, but there’s one extended take that delivers in spades on the “weird yet sexy” front. Horror-wise the movie doesn’t get in your face but a scene involving bloodied splinters in a glass of water sticks in the memory.

You could argue the conclusion doesn’t tie together as well as it should but I was by no means disappointed. This is the directing team’s debut feature and I’d be more than satisfied if it was coming from an established name. The production company call themselves The Visualistas. “That sounds like a boast,” I thought. Well they weren’t kidding. Verónica could be the start of something special.

 

This review first appeared on THN.

 

‘Top Knot Detective’ Review (Frightfest, THN)

Believe it or not, as the twentieth century was drawing to a close, there emerged a show so unique, so ground-breaking and above all so violent that it almost changed the face of the small screen forever. Ronin Suiri Tentai (or Top Knot Detective as it’s become known) showcased the unadulterated genius of Takashi Takamoto (above). A former pop star, he was unexpectedly asked by corporate employer Sutaffu to create a TV show.

The result took Japan by storm – Takamoto played Sheimasu Tantai, a samurai driven by bloody vengeance after the brutal “suicide” of his father at the hands of nemesis Haruto Kioke. Sheimasu used his dangerous and sexy skill-set to battle enemies both great and small. Not even children were safe from the surreal antics, with some of the content genuinely shocking.

That’s what was going on in front of the camera. But what about behind the scenes? The making of Top Knot Detective is even more of an eye-opener. Directors Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce have exhaustively drained the swamp of this bizarre production to bring unsuspecting viewers the truth behind the anarchic legend. The rivalries! Kioke was the son of Sutaffu’s founder and its main star before Takamoto stuck his iron in the fire. When he was rejected as the title character his bitterness ran deeper than a hippopotamus trying to sprint out of some quicksand. The romance! The addition of Mia Matsumoto to the cast as brave warrior Saku led to sparks flying between her and Takamoto. This tender relationship was savagely nipped in the bud when the big cheeses at Sutaffu learned of their clandestine meetings. The appalling crime! Tensions on the show went beyond creative differences, resulting in a gruesome discovery that will chill you to the core.

How could this fascinating and compelling tale possibly get any stranger? Read on to find out…

***SPOILER ALERT: Do not read on if you intend fully appreciating the warped artistry of Top Knot Detective***

They made it up. I’ll hold my hands up, they got me.

McCann and Pearce are to be applauded for creating something that looks and feels 100% real. They’ve captured the crappiness of bad TV and the authenticity of a documentary in a way I’ve never seen before. It’s quite an achievement to invent something from Japanese entertainment culture, which is notoriously outrageous anyway, and still make it convincing.

However once I discovered Top Knot Detective had led me up the garden path, I felt I’d been kicked in the cultural nuts. Now I know it’s a gag the power of the story is diminished. A narrative I was really invested in turned out to be an in-joke. A really well-executed one but an elaborate prank nonetheless. There’s plenty to admire here and I’d watch out for what the helmers do next. But with so much that’s enjoyably insane about the material they’re spoofing, is it really worth going to such lengths to satirise the extreme? To paraphrase the great Sheimasu himself, deductive reasoning must be applied to get the bottom of that mystery…

 

This review first appeared on THN.

“I love watching old movies…” Stephen Woolley Interview, ‘Their Finest’ (THN)

Their Finest is out to buy this week. Starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy, it tells the story of British propaganda during the Second World War and the strong bond developed between people from all walks of life in the face of conflict.

This warm-hearted and intelligent film is co-produced by the legendary Stephen Woolley (A Company Of Wolves and The Crying Game amongst others), who with Amanda Posey and Elizabeth Karlsen delved into the archives and uncovered the fascinating truth behind the celluloid war effort. We caught up with Stephen for an in-depth chat about the production…

THN: How did the project come to your attention?

Stephen Woolley: I was given the book (Their Finest Hour And A Half by Lissa Evans) and I loved it. The humour of it was exactly on my level. People were saying “You’d love it because it’s about old movies”, which is true. The BBC came on board, we’d produced Made In Dagenham and Great Expectations with them, and it really just blossomed from there.

We took a long time trying to get to the heart of the script because it was the story of a few characters, like a tapestry. It was a question of trying to find the right scenes for them. And the important thing as well was a lot of research went into it. I started to get quite fascinated myself! I realized that despite my enthusiasm I hadn’t seen these many of the films. So I set off…there were around 250-300 made during this period and I tried to watch every one of them, going into the archives. A lot of them were taped off the TV in the Eighties and Nineties, they were really hard to find. I was having collectors send them in… comedies and action pictures. Material about the Home Guard. It was a great process – I had a brilliant time to be honest, I love watching old movies.

So this was a combination of theatrical movies made at the time and propaganda pieces?

Well everything made at that time had to go across the desk of the Ministry of Information, which had to be approved. And they set up this company of filmmakers and producers… for example they made a film in 1943 called The Demi-Paradise with Laurence Olivier as a lovely Russian! Because Russia had just joined the war and they needed some propaganda to endorse them, everything before had been very anti-Russian. It’s very funny. Actually one of my favourites is Millions Like Us (also 1943), which was made to encourage women to go and work in factories, that’s a fantastic film.

They made all these short films which were pure propaganda, informational films. And they didn’t work. People thought they were boring. They didn’t want to be told what to do by people who were stars or who talked in very posh accents. The filmmakers had to realign what they were doing, and all these people like Michael Powell and Anthony Asquith, Sidney Gilliat jumped on board to create these films that would entertain and at the same time put out a message.

It was so different from propaganda in that sense, as we know it now. In those days it wasn’t really a dirty word. It became a dirty word during and after the war because of the way Germans used propaganda, it used to be an honest word. In fact, regarding the use of Dunkirk in the film, Churchill actually didn’t want anything made about that at the time. They were worried it was viewed as a retreat. Our film took the premise that they did decide to make a film about Dunkirk.

Was Millions Like Us, with its pro-female message, an inspiration for your film?

There is a short film that inspired The Nancy Starling (the fictional movie within Their Finest), which is a short film about a woman played by Peggy Ashcroft, who goes to help rescue her husband from Dunkirk (Channel Incident, 1940). It was interesting when Christopher Nolan’s movie opened because there are strong similarities, not that… our beach is less ambitious than his beach! But the idea of how Dunkirk became propagandized, to say it was a victory.

In the publicity the film looks bright and breezy but I found it quite subtle and intelligent. Is that down to the director Lone Scherfig?

Yeah. Lone did an amazing job, I think the fact she’s from Denmark and not the UK meant she was trying to make it from her perspective and pay tribute to those old movies she loved. Our great inspiration, apart from the script, was the cinema of that time, and that idea that no matter how bad things got you had to dig yourself out. The final act of the film – which I won’t talk too much about! – of what Gemma (Arterton)’s character had to go through, captures what was happening to people at the time.

We were trying to make a film that audiences today would like, but also one that might have been made at that time as well. There’s a parallel thing going on, the film within the film, and then our film. We got away with a lot of humour with the character of Ambrose (Bill Nighy) in that situation. A lot of those scenes look like they were made in 1943…

The footage from The Nancy Starling looks very authentic. Did you have fun recreating that era of moviemaking and those methods of production?

I enjoyed it very much. I read a lot of books about filmmaking during that period. We embraced the closeness of strangers, a group of people making something while there was a bloody war going on. They were away from the conflict but there was a spirit of camaraderie that was going through the country at the time. What people maybe don’t understand is that the war was terrible but it brought together all classes, all sexes. Everyone was saying things like “I don’t care if you’re a woman and you drive a truck”.

The film is an ensemble but it has three big names at the top – Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy. How did you come to cast the lead characters?

Well I’d worked with Gemma before on Made In Dagenham The Musical and also Byzantium. I’ve always been a fan of hers. Lone had wanted to cast Gemma in a few movies but it had never worked out. I knew Bill a bit socially and I love Bill, I was desperate to work with him so he was my number one choice for Ambrose. I was thrilled he loved the script. And Sam… I really liked The Riot Club, the film Lone had made and I suggested him to her. She thought he was maybe too young but even though he’s a young guy Sam has one of those faces. He’s got this weight in his eyes… he’s a bit of a bloke. He’s not like Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s a different type of actor, more in that Forties mould. We lucked out, we got all the people we wanted. And of course we had a great supporting cast: Jeremy Irons, Helen McCrory, Richard E. Grant, Paul Ritter…

How has your view of the industry, particularly the UK film industry, changed over the decades…?

We’re still making films, which is good news! People are still going to the cinema. But television is being watched more than ever, it’s come of age. Many movie directors are now working for Netflix, Amazon… there’s not the same delineation that there was. I think a lot of the films that I’ve made, like A Company Of Wolves and The Crying Game, would probably be made for TV now. In those days you had the ‘X’ certificate. Imagine A Company Of Wolves now… you could show it to a twelve year-old, without them even blinking! So there’s been a big sea change and we’ve got to fight really hard to really preserve cinematic drama, like with The Limehouse Golem, which I’ve got coming up with Bill Nighy again. You have to remember that you’re making cinema and not television. You need money for period film and to make it work in the cinema. I’m always conscious of that medium. You’ve got to make your mark. There’s still a big audience for it.

 

This interview first appeared on THN.

‘Their Finest’ Home Entertainment Review (THN)

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.