A great companion piece to the recently released Netflix doc series Five Came Back, about American filmmakers’ role during World War II, Their Finest takes a look at how the British film industry kept busy during the worst of the London Blitz, just prior to the American involvement in the conflict. The film focuses on Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), who goes in for a job interview at the Ministry of Information and ends up becoming a “slop” screenwriter assigned to punch up and make seem real any female dialogue for propaganda films that are produced to boost the morale of those left behind.
Most of the people working behind and in front of the camera on these films are men who were unable to serve as well as women, which made the determination of these creative types all the more powerful and resolute. Cole was no exception to this, taking inspiration from a story she hears about twin sisters who took their drunken father’s fishing boat out during Dunkirk to rescue evacuating sailors stranded in the English Channel. Looking for a film to appeal to women, the Ministry goes with the story, which goes through radical changes before (even during) production, to the point where the original story is somewhat lost for the sake of a more cinematic story. The film’s producer, Buckley (Sam Claflin, from Me Before You, and the last two Hunger Games movies), pushes Cole to be a better writer and more economic storyteller, and the two seem drawn to each other as peers working under intense condition sometimes do.
Working from a lively script by Gaby Chiappe (adapting the Lissa Evans novel), the exceptional cast is rounded out by Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard, one of the film’s lead actors, best known for a role he played many years earlier and too old to serve on the battlefield. At first, it feels as if Ambrose is only there for comic relief (his fragile ego makes him easy to bruise but also easy to manipulate), but his dedication to acting proves to be a source of resiliency on the production. Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory play Hilliard’s managers to amusing effect. Also on hand are Jeremy Irons as the Secretary of War, Richard E. Grant as the head of the film’s production company, and Jack Huston as Cole’s artist “husband” (they aren’t actually married but pretend to be), who finds her working upsetting, but it’s also the only thing bringing in money to their rundown apartment.
An 11th-hour addition to both Their Finest and the film being made is Jake Lacy (Obvious Child, “The Office”) as an American war hero brought in once the Americans enter the war, and the film now has the possibility of playing in the United States. His scenes primarily involve him being a terrible actor, and the production finds many very amusing ways of working around that, including assigning Hilliard as an acting coach.
Although not a telling of a specific real-life film production, it’s easy to believe that much of Their Finest is based on incidents that actually happened. Director Lone Scherfig (An Education, One Day) uses this wartime plot to show that, even in the worst of times, everyone wants to give notes on a film script. More reflective of today’s culture, the film also never misses the chance to show just how ill-treated and underpaid women were, even when they were doing the same work men did before the war broke out. There’s an almost chilling conversation early in the film where Cole is told that there’s no way her salary could be equal to a man doing the same job, nor will she get screen credit. Although she’s clearly stunned by this declaration, she says nothing, which is undoubtedly historically accurate.
The moving relationship that develops between Cole and Hilliard is one of mutual nurturing. She writes a beautiful part for him, and he makes certain her contribution to the finished film doesn’t go unrecognized. The more predictable brewing love story between Cole and Buckley probably isn’t necessary, but it’s always nice when the best-looking people in the cast stand next to each other a lot. I actually got a real change out of this surprisingly modern story that quite often resembles a movie made in the 1940s. Arterton has a classic charm and beauty to her that makes her presence in a period film seem just as natural as her debuting a Bond girl. In its own right, Their Finest shines a succinct, pleasant spotlight on a small portion of the British war effort that I’ve never seen told before, and it’s as fascinating as it is funny and entertaining.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.