Their Finest (2016) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some language and a scene of sexuality
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Paul Ritter, Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, Henry Goodman, Jake Lacy, Jeremy Irons, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory
Director: Lone Scherfig
Screenplay: Gaby Chiappe (based on the novel, "Their Finest Hour and a Half" by Lissa Evans)
Review published May 1, 2017
Set in 1940, around the time of the London Blitz during World War II, Their Finest stars Gemma Arterton (The Girl with All the Gifts, Gemma Bovery) as Catrin Cole, a fledgling screenwriter from Wales who has been hired on by the British Ministry of Information, Film Division, looking to women to fill in jobs for some of the men lost to fight the war, to work in London on inspirational films geared toward women. Later, she is hired on to help with a full-length feature, meant to shore up the viewing public, particularly the female viewers, to the cause, as well as to keep morale up in a bleak time for the country.
Her first uncredited task is to help craft the women's dialogue, called by the men in the industry as 'the slop', in a narrative based on the true story of twin sisters who saved the lives of many wounded Brits evacuating Dunkirk while en route to rescue a friend. Complications arise when it is discovered that the real story isn't quite as heroic as they originally thought. But, being this is wartime, the public needs any positive news they can get, which means that the story will get highly embellished once it's all said and done, especially when the War Department wants to inject new elements to foster sympathy from the viewers in the neutral-minded United States to join the war effort.
Their Finest is based on a novel by Lissa Evans, adapted by veteran television scribe Gaby Chiappe, crafted by director Lone Scherfig (An Education, Italian for Beginners) from inception to go down easy for broad-taste audiences looking for a thoughtful and feel-good period piece. The trademark dry British humor is a major selling point for this undertaking, which also sets it apart from the broader humor found in another period-piece comedy about social issues and occupational hurdles for women in the workplace, Hidden Figures.
The performances are fine, much better than they would seem to be on the written page, with life breathed into roles through expert precision by the likes of the scene-stealing Bill Nighy (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) as the long-in-the-tooth actor with the comically narcissistic air, Ambrose Hilliard, and Arterton in giving a sympathetic and emotional portrayal of a woman at a particularly tough crossroads in both her career and her personal life. Sam Claflin (Me Before You) is also of appeal as the casually sexist, smarmy foil and obvious potential romantic interest, Tom Buckley, the head writer for the film Catrin is working on. It's fun to watch the behind-the-scenes machinations and compromises being suggested and enacted as the project courses on. Less interesting is the relationship issues Ctrin must deal with at home and at work, with turns that run especially contrived and distracting from the larger and more interesting themes of the film.
Some skeptical viewers will see Their Finest as yet another movie about how filmmaking can save the world. Coupled with the World War II setting, you would gather the entire creation had been constructed with award consideration in mind, given how films with both of those angles are often in the running year in and year out. While it does play out as that prototypical crowd-and-award-panel-pleasing effort meant to go down soft and easy, it is, nevertheless, enjoyable as an entertainment, even if it is too glossy and formulaic in approach to buy as a depiction of how events might have actually went down back in the day. Nevertheless, the film doesn't ignore the tragedies going on all around during the blitz, offering some poignant moments amid the devastation of the bombing. It's to Scherfig's credit that she is able to tie those downbeat moments in without losing the overall tone, at least until it draws closer to its conclusion, where things begin to take turns that don't quite jibe with the spirit you'd expect from the first half.
Riding high on nostalgia and sentimentality, with witty dialogue and actors who make their respective characters a breeze to watch, it's an enjoyable film worth a look beyond typical blockbusters at the multiplex. Perhaps it's not an unintended irony that the making of a film in which facts are glossed over for what seems most heroic, including the unnecessary injection of a love story, an American actor, and dialogue punched up for audience effect, would itself be the kind of film exemplified in the course of its story. Cinephiles looking for something fresh or with edge may not find much here to sate their interests, but for those who just like a well-produced, down-the-middle tale of the grit and determination that went into war-time movie-making from days gone by, Their Finest will be good enough to enjoy for the duration, even if it won't likely take up many spots in annual top tens among film critics.
©2017 Vince Leo