It’s simply astonishing to me that a movie as good as Their Finest can slip by so many viewers, while inferior films vie for box-office bucks and/or award glitter. Yet the movie got by me, and I consider myself rather alert to most things cinematic. Were it not for a casual conversation with a colleague who mentioned a “really terrific” film he’d recently seen, I may have never seen what’s now one of my more favorite movies of 2017.
And many of you would’ve missed it. Now you won’t.
Released in the United States in April last year, the British production received fairly cursory notice, perhaps because it was the least publicized of three films to deal, at least in part, with the evacuation of Dunkirk at the start of World War II. Coming before Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated blockbuster and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, both rather solemn dramas, the unusual tone and approach of Their Finest might’ve left distributors unsure what they were getting into.
For her debut feature screenplay, seasoned TV writer Gaby Chiappe won nominations from three prestigious British award groups but was totally ignored here. Her source is Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half, about the making of a movie during early WWII. Shortening the title (derived from a Churchill address) and thus broadening its application, the film relates on many levels.
Both comic and serious, romantic and dramatic, Their Finest is about the war and the movies, love and cynicism and art and propaganda.
Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is a young Welsh woman married in name if not fact to penniless painter Ellis Cole (Jack Huston). Wounded in the Spanish Civil War, Ellis isn’t able to fight against Hitler nor make a living from his art. Consequently, Catrin takes it on herself to find employment, quite by accident ending up as an assistant screenwriter for the British Ministry of Film, which is desperate to find a suitable subject for its next venture—one to inspire the people in the country’s “darkest hour.”
Catrin finds just the thing in the remarkable events of Dunkirk, narrowing the focus to the story of two real-life sisters and their drunken father whose boat was, initially at least, part of the flotilla. Considerably altering the “facts” to make the characters and events more palatable and heroic, the filmmakers (with government support and encouragement) set to the task with cynical determination and reluctant enthusiasm.
To tug at the heartstrings and underscore good ol’ English pluck at the same time, the writers turn the real-life brute of a father into a drunken hero and the plain, unassuming sisters into courageous cuties. Since British filmgoers typically go ga-ga over dogs, a cute little terrier is a crucial part in the mix. Finally, the government needs to get America into the war, so what better way to coax the Yanks than by making one of the film’s heroes an American, played by none other than a real-life Yankee fighter ace (Jack Lacy).
The fact that the blonde, blue-eyed stud cannot act his way out of a paper bag is only one of the many problems facing the stalwart filmmakers. Yet another is pandering to the demands of the aging egotistical actor chosen to play the drunken father. A former matinee idol, Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) does not like to be reminded of the realities of time and the mirror.
Not to be confused with a parody, Their Finest is still a very funny look at the machinations of moviemaking under the duress of propaganda. On the other hand, several sequences recall the grim details and tragedies faced by the British during the blitz. The film is also a touching and affecting love story, more realistic than fairy-tale, centering on Catrin’s involvement with her “husband” and her growing attraction for her colleague, gruff Tom Buckely (Sam Claflin), a seasoned writer.
Director Lone Scherfig, who made a star of Carey Mulligan in 2009’s An Education (another period piece), not only captures the look and feel of everyday people under siege, she brings a feminist perspective to the social expectations of the time. The cast are uniformly wonderful, Nighy in particular is, as usual, absolutely hilarious.
Witty, wise and touching, Their Finest has special appeal to those who love movies about movies.