Review: Their Finest
By John Corrado
★★★ (out of 4)
It’s fitting that Their Finest, a movie about a British film crew in 1940 trying to craft a hit that will raise the spirits of audiences during World War II, should be released now as we inch ever closer into another era of historic uncertainty.
The film actually premiered at TIFF last year, where it somewhat surprisingly failed to make much of a splash, yet audiences are embracing it now in limited release, perhaps because the need for this sort of affirmative escapism has risen even more in the last seven months. I like to think that it’s also because people are catching onto the fact that the film itself is quite good, offering a nicely handled mix of optimism and emotion.
The film follows Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a Welsh writer who is hired by the Ministry of Information’s Film Division to help craft a propaganda film that serves not only to boost the morale of British audiences experiencing the war firsthand, but also to help convince American forces to join the fight. She is teamed up with a more cynical co-writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), to work on a loosely fact-based story of twin sisters who steal their drunkard uncle’s boat to sail to the Battle of Dunkirk and rescue a soldier, perfect fodder for a dramatic but inspiring feel good film.
Catrin is initially brought in to write the female dialogue, which the studio heads crudely refer to as the “slop,” but her talents are recognized almost immediately and she ends up becoming an invaluable part of the project, not least of which for her unique abilities to ease tensions on set when it comes time to shoot. Despite being paid less than the men, Catrin is also increasingly reliant on the pay checks from the studio to support herself, living with an artist partner (Jack Huston) who was injured in combat and can’t really provide for her.
Gemma Arterton effortlessly carries the film with an effervescent performance, and she is supported by an immensely charming turn by Sam Claflin. The two share great chemistry in their scenes together, and the ensemble cast around them is also uniformly solid. This includes a perfectly cast Bill Nighy as an aging thespian who is struggling to accept that his best roles might be behind him, and delightful work from Jake Lacey as an earnest American soldier who is given a role to appease international audiences, despite not really being able to act.
Directed by Lone Scherfig, delivering her best film since An Education in 2009, Their Finest is a consistently well crafted period piece that skillfully blends self-aware humour with the real drama of World War II. Although the war is mostly pushed to the background of this story, which unfolds mainly in the writing room and on film sets, the violence of it threatens to disrupt at any moment, with frequent airstrikes leaving the streets littered with rubble, giving added relevance and a sense of urgency to their work. The film also fittingly serves as a celebration of the importance of having a strong female voice involved in the filmmaking process.
This is, after all, a movie about the connective power of cinema to bring people together and raise our spirits in tough times, and Their Finest successfully manages to deliver the sort of slightly melancholic but also uplifting and optimistic picture that would have done well during the war. This is a piece of lovingly crafted and often delightful escapism that is grounded enough in reality to keep us engaged, but also celebrates the importance of film to offer a break from the real world for a couple of hours, which is exactly what this film succeeds so wonderfully at doing.