‘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.

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‘Jason Bourne’ DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

jb-1The last entry in the Bourne franchise was 2012’s The Bourne Legacy starring Jeremy Renner. While that became a one-off, it’s worth examining the character’s true legacy before diving in with this review. The original trilogy helped cement Matt Damon‘s position in Hollywood. Paul Greengrass‘s involvement from part two onwards gave the series an additional layer of quality. More than anything, the films had an impact on movie action in general. When Daniel Craig took the role of 007, it was no coincidence his adventures were “back to basics” in nature, a single shot saying more than a million bullets out of a machine gun ever could.

Identity through to Supremacy appeared to offer a complete journey for Jason Bourne. Despite this, Damon and Greengrass have got the band back together for their riskiest mission yet: an extra helping that tries not to tarnish what has gone before. Have they succeeded? Well, on the whole yes, though there are a few bumps on the road as they go.

Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse have developed their hero’s personal odyssey further by revealing hitherto-unknown information about Bourne’s involvement in Operation Blackbriar (the covert assassination league he blew wide open during his last outing). When former ally-turned-Snowden-esque-hacker Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) contacts a broken-down Bourne about this explosive development, the scene is set for him to return from his exile as a bare knuckle boxer and set the world to rights one more time. It’s a logical but well-worn approach, though in fairness the strength of the franchise was the way it put a new spin on hackneyed spy thriller clichés rather than innovate itself.

Drawn back into the fray like a chiselled moth to a flame, Damon’s Bourne runs up against an impressive trio of villains. Tommy Lee Jones‘s weathered CIA chief Robert Dewey wants the rogue operative permanently erased. Alicia Vikander‘s ambitious and fetching Heather Lee represents the changing face of intelligence, believing Bourne can be brought back into the fold. Meanwhile Vincent Cassel’s “The Asset” becomes the latest relentless Euro-henchman to be put on Damon’s tail, a man of steel with old scores to settle.

Inevitably it’s more of the same controlled chaos, with Greengrass’s handheld camera roving amongst the fist fights and destruction at breakneck speed. The unflinching pace doesn’t make up for repetition and an overall lack of meat. However some intriguing snippets of Bourne’s character are in evidence – most notably the way he distances himself from Nicky’s counter culture activities. He may be fighting the system, but at heart he’s an establishment man, a strand which gives credence to Vikander’s belief he secretly wants to return to duty.

She is the film’s strongest element, Lee possessing equal capacity to wear either the white hat or the black. Damon can do this sort of thing in his sleep and the same can be said of Jones, who is a welcome presence. Cassel’s ageing hard man is also highly watchable. Like a lot of these big action projects, it could have done with being a bit shorter and not all the fresh ingredients work. Riz Ahmed‘s social media mogul doesn’t add much to the narrative, aside from making the basic point that Dewey’s world is changing.

Ironically the climactic chase has all the extravagance of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond, a sign that maybe the series is running low on inspiration. The team have had a good run, and made a sizeable mark on the genre – as Moby’s excellent Extreme Ways kicks in over the end credits, it might be time to admit those ways are now the old ways.

 

This review first appeared on THN.

The Hound Of The Baskervilles DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

SH HOB

One of the best things about having a modern day Sherlock is it introduces people to previous incarnations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s definitive detective. So with a new remastering of The Hound Of The Baskervilles arriving to own, why not give Benedict Cumberbatch the slip for eighty minutes and spend some time in the company of dapper deerstalker-wearer Basil Rathbone?

Accompanied by Nigel Bruce‘s Doctor Watson he set the template for the twentieth century take on Baker Street’s most famous resident, popularizing the character as a master of mystery, his faithful yet bumbling companion tagging along in his wake. Baskervilles remains arguably the best-known Holmes story – somewhat curiously as it’s an atypical adventure in many ways, having more in common with a ghost story than a tale of fiendish deduction. Nevertheless, 20th Century Fox chose this as Rathbone’s debut, a decision that nudged the actor’s career into movie legend. Three quarters of a century on however, does the opening instalment endure…?

It does, and for one very important reason, which like a pontificating Holmes I’ll save for later. First off, the yarn itself, which the Cumberbatch series made a rather convoluted stab at adapting a few years ago. When Sir Charles Baskerville is found face down at his Dartmoor pile, the death resurrects rumours of a monstrous canine who roamed the countryside, supposedly wiping out generations of the family. Holmes and Watson are paid a visit by medical man Mortimer (an entertainingly arch performance by Lionel Atwill, one of many), who fears for Sir Charles’ heir Sir Henry (the baby-faced and top-billed Richard Greene). Watson travels with Sir Henry to the Gothic gloom of Baskerville Hall to investigate, his pipe-puffing friend seemingly taking a back seat. Or does he? Cue an array of forebodingly-lit faces, varying accents and enough fog to choke the Albert Hall.

The production fills the soundstage with untamed moorland, which looks marvellous even by today’s standards. Hilariously the opening proclaims there is “no district more dismal than that vast expanse of primitive wasteland”, perhaps the biggest geographical insult in filmic history, only added to by the natives opting for Scottish accents. Some handsome street sets and model work complete the visual splendour. The supernatural elements of the story are accentuated here, with a scene involving a seance and references to the ancient presence of druidic stones.

By far the most successful part of the action is that which other adaptations have struggled with: the title creature itself. Saddling themselves with what is essentially a larger than average dog, previous movies have failed to create a memorable monster. Helmer Sidney Lanfield selects an animal that’s convincingly fearsome without being silly, the climactic skirmish between the hound and Sir Henry being particularly well-staged.

I’m maybe going to annoy some purists by saying I’m not the greatest fan of Rathone. To me he comes across like a gameshow host more than a Master Detective, though the famous disguise sequence is a treat. Bruce forms a pleasing contrast to later, hard-eged interpretations of Watson from actors such as Ian Hart and Martin Freeman.

Extras-wise, StudioCanal have laid on a lavish spread of talking head for aficionados. Author Michael B Druxman delivers a potted history of Rathbone’s colourful career and no less an authority than Sir Christopher Frayling gives us his thoughts on Holmes in a meaty forty-five minute dissection.

The conclusion is brisk and possesses a stiffer upper lip than a deceased Baskerville, though a pointed drugs reference at the end may well surprise. This rollicking re-release shows there’s life in the old dog yet.

This review first appeared on THN.