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Their Finest review – a witty and charming period drama

by | 21 Apr 2017 | Film Reviews

‘A new scriptwriter for British propaganda films joins the cast and crew of a major production during the Blitz.’

Their Finest is a small, charming film that combines witty humour, romance, and a character driven drama, to tell a fictional story within a true and bleak time in world history. Directed by Lone Scherfig, and based on the novel by Lissa Evans, the plot follows Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), who is hired by the Ministry of Information as a scriptwriter for propaganda films during World War Two.

Wanting to produce a feature film that’s both authentic and full of optimism, Catrin is brought on board the writing team by head scriptwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), who sees her natural talent. Together they work on a film that is based on the Dunkirk evacuation, focusing particularly on the story of two young girls who took their small fishing boat across the channel to help rescue the troops stranded on the beach.

Despite the lighter tone for a war film, Scherfig makes sure that the horrors are never watered down, and that the audiences see the harrowing reality of living in London during the Blitz. By concentrating on a different aspect of World War Two, she’s able to add something original to the story, bringing a different perspective.

Whereas a lot of these movies tend to keep the focus on the literal battles, Their Finest looks at the battle in the mind, suggesting the people who remained at home and what they did, was just as important than those who went off to fight. We get to see the psychological toil it must have had, having to watch their sons and husbands go off to war, knowing the real possibility they might not come back. As a result, propaganda plays an essential part in any war, with film in particular being an effective tool in keeping the populace positive, and their spirits high.

At first glance, what seems like a romantic period drama, soon turns into something far more layered, with many facets to it, one of which is an exploration into the power of film. This was especially important during the forties, when the film industry was going through a resurgence, with millions of British citizens going to the cinema every year to find some form of escape from the brutality of living in a war-torn country. Film had a huge influence on morale, and it’s this element Their Finest centres on, with the British government seeing the potential of the right story being told.

Not just for boosting morale, but also, according to Jeremy Irons Secretary of War, for convincing the Americans to join the fight. Therefore, this is a movie that celebrates film making and gives the audience an insight into the process of writing a story and putting it on screen. Casting, location shooting, dealing with studio demands, and even having to do rewrites and reshoots, Their Finest really gets into the nitty gritty of film making.

What’s more, Scherfig also tackles gender roles, with the film having a feminist agenda running throughout. We’re shown this through the lens of the era, where women had to step into traditional male roles while the men were away, and the obvious tensions that caused. This is shown clearly through Catrin’s husband, played by Jack Huston. With an injured leg he’s exempted from joining the army, and as a struggling artist, feels as if his masculinity is in question, finding it hard with Catrin paying the bills.

Even as a scriptwriter, she’s initially relegated to ‘slop’ writing (women’s dialogue), and has to work twice as hard as the men to prove her worth. It’s a fascinating look at how the war forced the prevailing chauvinistic culture to change and give way for a more progressive way of life, with some men worried that the women wouldn’t go back into their boxes after the fighting.

Arterton gives a fantastic performance as Catrin. In spite of the period setting, she is able to imbue her character with a real contemporary edge and make her relatable, suggesting that things may not have changed that much over the decades. Perfectly balancing warmth and steely resolve, she is the emotional core of this film. Well written and with a bold ending, she’s more than a romantic lead, and it’s through her journey we see what it was like for women to live in a man’s world.

Tom Buckley is that typical grumpy character who deep down has a heart of gold, but Claflin does a great job of bringing enough depth and nuance to make him more than an archetype, and he has a brilliant combative friendship with Catrin. Bill Nighy, as the narcissistic actor Ambrose Hilliard, is the closest the film has to a comic relief character, but even he’s fleshed out well, also having a moving and platonic relationship with Catrin, who he learns to recognise as a fellow professional.

‘2017 may very well be the year of the war film. With Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016) already been and gone, and with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) and Jonathon Teplitzky’s Churchill (2017) still to come, there’s obviously an appetite for them at the moment. There’s no doubt though that Their Finest will certainly standout as the most charming of them. Scherfig has managed to make an engaging drama about World War Two, the power of cinema, and the beginning transition from the male dominant world to a more egalitarian one, all packaged neatly into one film. With good direction, attention to detail, and well written and performed characters, this is also a solid period romance with plenty to entice both men and women of all ages.’

David Axcell

Film Critic

David has quite a broad taste in film which includes big budget blockbusters and small indie films; including International and Arthouse cinema. As long as it’s good in that particular genre, he’ll watch anything.

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