TL;DR – Where Their Finest excels is in creating the world of WW2 United Kingdom and what it was like to make a film during this time, but it is held back a bit is in its slightly clunky script.
Score – 3 out of 5 stars
It is at the depths of WW2, Hitler is on the move everywhere, the allies have been forced to retreat from France, London is under almost daily bombings during the Blitz, and the USA is refusing to get involved, it is the darkest of times. However, it is also a time of great change both within society and also within the film industry, with pressures to boost moral but also the need to engage with women in a way that they have never done before. Within this complicated setting, we have the Ministry of Information who is trying to make a film about the Dunkirk evacuation, the biggest military retreat in history yet also a great source of national pride as the whole country mobilised to save the troops from the approaching German Army. This is a great setting for a film, it deals with a lot of issues that feel very much of the time yet still relevant today, but can it maintain your interest for the whole film, well that’s what we are going to look at today.
So let’s start with the premise of the film, Gabriel Baker (Henry Goodman) is the head of a film production company in 1940s England, he is known for making silly comedies that people love, but they are a distraction from the War, not a boost to the war effort, so he is desperate to be allowed to make a great patriotic film, but one of the heads of the Ministry of Information Roger Swain (Richard E Grant) is unsure he could do it. So it is tasked to Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) to find a story that would fit the bill and satisfy all the diverse parties. So Buckley brings in Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) to help them work on scripts to target women who have become more and more important in keeping the country going as most of the young men have been seconded into the war effort. This continues until they receive word of the Starling sisters who stole/borrowed their father’s boat and rushed to Dunkirk to help with the evacuation. This was a story that fit all their requirements and Catrin was brought on board to write the slop (women’s dialogue) to make it sound more authentic. Now at this point the reality of the extent of what they are doing dawns on everyone and so they begin writing the film that will unite the country, and as the movie goes on it has to do more and more things.
From this set-up, they jump into the world of WW2 and the world of trying to make a film during that time, and this is where Their Finest excels. WW2 London is painstakingly reconstructed from the costumes, to the locations, to the characters mannerisms and motivations. There is this constant looming threat that whenever the sun sets that a bomb could fall and kill anyone at any moment. To get this level of commitment requires a lot of attention to the details, even down to facial hair of the extras, but it pays off in locating the film in this thematically deep period of history. Another area the film excels is in how it shows all the behind the scenes of how they made movies in the 1940s. The use of matte paintings, using forced perspective to give the appearance of a lot of people on an empty beach, all of these were fascinating to watch.
The whole film more or less is shown from Catrin’s perspective so this puts a lot of pressure on Gemma Arterton because you need to connect with her or the movie just does not work, and thankfully she shines. She creates a character that is finding her feet in a new and ever-changing world, where she needs to prove herself at every turn. For many countries in the world, WW2 was the catalyst of the suffragette movement and Gemma Arterton’s performance and the script does a great job of showing this and in a clever way. She also does a really good job at the soft Welsh accent, indeed a lot of the accents are really good and it was great to see such a great regional variation rather than just the general London English accent that you hear most often. Most of the cast have good characters arcs, with Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) having the most profound shift. It’s surprising but I tend to find one of the more difficult characters actors play is being an actor, but Bill Nighy navigated this interesting divide impeccably. I liked Sam Claflin performance as Tom, Catrin’s boss and chief screenwriter, he fits into that not-scruffy nerf-hurter category well. He does such a good job I completely missed that he was that guy from the Hunger Games. Overall it is a strong cast even in some of the more supporting roles like Helen McCrory and Eddie Marsan who play brother and sister Sophie and Sammy, and this is what helps drive the film forward.
Their Finest falls into this category of films that present Hollywood or filmmakers in general as heroes in a war, see Argo for example. Now Their Finest benefits better than many of its contemporaries as it is set during WW2 which had a clear good guy and a clear bad guy to construct narratives around. However, what many of these films fail to explore is the role of propaganda which is basically the motivation behind the film they are making. In Their Finest, I was glad to actually see some references to propaganda and its role, but I would have liked to see it explored a bit more.
Now all this being said, Their Finest is not without its issues and ironically or paradoxically whichever word you prefer, for a film that the main characters are screenwriters the big issue I had with the film is with its script or at least how they chose to present it on screen. Now because this section is looking at the story there may be spoilers here so please be careful if you have not seen the film. The first big issue comes with the pacing of the film, it is clear that they were going for a slow build but at times it felt like they went for too slow of a build. This is felt in the second act and the start of the third act, given that one of the key criticisms of Catrin is that her scripts are too wordy and needed to be cut down I think the film could have taken that advice at times. While the pacing was a problem the bigger issue for me is that Their Finest needs to set everything up with regards to its ending however by doing this, it actually shows its hand too early making what should be big emotional turns feel entirely predictable. There are two big emotional turning points in the film, however, if you have even the slightest familiarity to romantic cinema you will know what is coming and the outcomes. Part of this is because Catrin is the point of view character and as such, she can never be the bad person so it limits your options to the more predictable outcomes. So for example [Major Spoilers] for the first two acts, we are being set up with this love triangle between Catrin, Tom, and Ellis (Jack Huston). Now how was the movie going to resolve this, well from the second Catrin reveals she’s not really married to Ellis, I knew they would write him out the film by having her go home to surprise him only to find him in the bed with another woman, and sure enough 20 minutes later there it is. This is a story device that has been used so often in film it’s disappointing to see it here. This continues to the other turn in the third act which was also so predictable, indeed I wrote down how the movie was going to resolve itself at the start of the third act and sure enough, it happened. Even if you had not picked it up on what was happening, you would have known what going to go down because they for all intents and purposes shone a spotlight on it and said to camera ‘look at this, this will be important in a few minutes time’. After such a beautiful setup it is a little disappointing to see Their Finest get predictable, or lazy, with its script towards the end, because it really undercut the emotional impact that could have been there [End of Spoilers]
In the end I did quite like Their Finest even with the problematic ending, because it does everything it set out to do, it showed us what it was like to live in that world, what it was like for women in this rapidly shifting world, what it was like to make a film during WW2, and the power that it could have on moral. It is beautifully acted, the world is wonderfully created and if they could have just fixed those clunky aspects of the script than this could have been a classic for the ages. Overall I do recommend Their Finest, if you like the process of making films, or you want to see more of the setting, or if you want to see Bill Nighy own every scene he is in, or simply to see the finished film within a film when it is done, but if those things don’t interest you then you might want to give this one a miss.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Trailer – Click Here to View (all trailers have heavy spoilers)
Directed by – Lone Scherfig
Screenplay by – Gaby Chiappe
Based on – Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans
Music by – Rachel Portman
Cinematography by – Sebastian Blenkov
Edited by – Lucia Zucchetti
Starring – Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Helen McCrory, Eddie Marsan, Jake Lacy, Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, Henry Goodman, Claudia Jessie & Stephanie Hyam
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: 14A; NZ: M; UK: 12A; USA: R