This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.
Their Finest is a charming, if somewhat overly schmaltzy, Second World War comedy drama.
To be fair, the basic premise and setting do a lot to carry the film. The Second World still exerts a mythic power, particularly to the members of the United Kingdom that weathered the Blitz before marching (with American support) to victory. That moment is powerful and evocative, Britain serving as the “island fortress” holding Nazi German at bay. The imagery is striking, from the bombed out buildings to the rubble on the streets to the sounds of air raid sirens. It is a rich and evocative setting.
More than that, it is a setting that offers all manner of storytelling possibilities. As one of the defining moments of the twentieth century for Great Britain, it is the perfect fodder for telling smaller and more intimate tales. After all, everybody knows the basics of the Blitz, so there is more opportunity to explore the lives of those who exist at the fringe of the narrative. Those were extraordinary times, and so stories that might otherwise seem ordinary are elevated to be extraordinary by virtue of unfolding against those circumstances.
Their Finest is the tale of about one woman’s struggle to be heard and acknowledged as a writer against this backdrop, fighting the war at home in any number of ways. It is a fascinating premise, and one that feels relatively under-explored in the larger context of this defining historical moment. While Their Finest occasionally trips into cliché and melodrama, and occasionally even loses focus on the story that it is trying to tell. Still, a strong cast and a lot of charm carry Their Finest a long way.
Gemma Arterton starts as Catrin Cole, a young Welsh girl who moves up to London during the Blitz to live with artist Ellis Cole. The pair struggle to make ends meet in wartorn London, and so Catrin is forced to find a job. She writes comic strips for a small newspaper, that brings her to the attention of the Ministry of Information, where she is promptly assigned the task of writing “slop”, providing a feminine ear for dialogue from female characters. However, Cole quickly finds herself increasingly involved in winning the propaganda war.
Their Finest does an excellent job of capturing the frustration and the opportunity provided by the Second World War. It has been well observed that the absence of young men due to the war in Europe led to a diversification of the workforce. During the conflict, women were able to work in factories and labour, filling vacancies left in the workforce while also demonstrating that they were just as capable as their male counterparts. Inadvertently, this opportunity may have paved the way for the second-wave feminism that defined the sixties.
This plays out as the heart of Their Finest, which works best as an exploration of Catrin trying to navigate a male-dominated world that still treats her with suspicion and derision even when she is essential to the effort. The script and the direction skilfully reinforce the challenges that Catrin faces, from the oogling she receives from male colleagues to a superior’s creepy fascination with brushing her shoulders during what should be a routine mission. Indeed, Their Finest even pushes further than that, making it clear that this is the just the beginning of what will be an uphill struggle.
Their Finest benefits largely from lush production. Produced by BBC Films, Their Finest works remarkably well as a period piece, very effectively recreating a sense of the nation under siege in the forties, shifting the action from London to Dover and then back again while brilliantly capturing a sense of place and mood. Director Lone Scherfig does great work, particularly with a number of cheeky and inspired choices. There is one early memorable sequence involving the bombing of a department store, while she also has great fun emulating the style and tone of forties cinema.
The script is remarkably sturdy. The basic story is something very familiar, the tale of an unlikely bunch of misfits thrown together by circumstance and who seem to be facing active resistance from the very system that they are trying to save. Outside of the bog-standard romantic plotting, there are lots of little well-observed details that convey a sense of place and character; pithy one-liners exchanged in anger, explanations for how mortuaries tried to reassemble bombing victims, even fantasy segues teasing out the fantasies of these same characters.
The biggest problems with Their Finest come from its insistence on sticking to convention. The romantic plotting is fairly straightforward, but relies on a third act twist that feels at once incredibly cynical and mercilessly cribbed from a much better Second World War film. More than that, there is a sense that the movie occasionally looses focus on Catrin and her story. This is particularly true with the focus on the supporting character of Ambrose Hilliard, a veteran British character actor who finds himself playing the comic relief.
Of course, as played by Bill Nighy, Ambrose Hilliard himself serves as very effective comic relief. The character’s ego and affect are one of the movie’s most reliable recurring gags, leaning easily on Nighy’s wry charm. In fact, the character’s repeated attempts to school an American fighter pilot in the subtle nuances of acting are a constant source of amusement. However, there is a sense that Their Finest is not content to cast Nighy as a supporting character and instead insists on elevating him to the status of co-lead with Arterton.
There is a slight sense of self-awareness here, given that Hilliard campaigns to have his own roles in these propaganda pieces fleshed out and developed beyond the feminist messages of the work in question. Their Finest devotes an entire subplot to Hilliard, following him for a number of extended scenes and through no fewer than two separate agents. The film attempts to argue that older men like Hilliard were also beneficiaries of the Second World War, equating his own new opportunities to those afforded to women like Catrin.
This storytelling choice feels rather tone deaf, given the gulf between the experiences of women and older retirement-age men in forties Britain. Catrin Cole is fighting for basic recognition of her own equality, acknowledgement that her entire gender is no disqualification from the work. In contrast, Hilliard has a life of relative privilege. While his later years might be tragic, he still enjoys much greater privilege that Catrin and it feels like the movie indulges in a false equivalence to justify giving Nighy chewier material.
Still, these are relatively minor problems. Their Finest ticks along quite well, checking many of the expected boxes in a very charming (and even disarming) fashion.
I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3