Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Clafin, Jack Huston, Richard E. Grant, Jake Lacy, Bill Nighy, Rachael Sterling
Runtime: 116 minutes
Release date: April 21st
Never underestimate a woman’s touch. While Calamity Jane was overtly referring to household chores when she sang this (though, a more subversive message is really not hard to derive from this sequence), it’s an idea that drives the joyous new release Their Finest, in form and content – a film based on a novel by Lissa Evans, directed by Lone Scherfig, and centred on one woman’s contribution to boosting morale during World War II. Catrin Cole (Arterton) is recruited by the British Ministry of Information in 1941 to lend a female perspective to their short propaganda films. Impressed with her aptitude for writing ‘the slop’ (the honest-to-goodness/badness term used for women’s dialogue), The Men in Charge© put her to work on a feature-length flick about twin sisters in a stolen boat rescuing marooned soldiers after the battle of Dunkirk. Despite working within the confines of propaganda following The Blitz, with a disillusioned scriptwriter (Clafin) and a difficult cast – including a pompous, hammy has-been (Nighy) and a clueless American introduced for political purposes (Lacy) – Catrin ultimately thrives and self-actualises in a job she initially took just to support herself and her no-good waste-of-space artist swine husband (Huston; I didn’t much care for his character).
There’s not a lot to be said for originality in terms of the film’s plot, or its overall theme of endurance and empowerment during wartime – although there is a wildly unexpected twist at the film’s climax which serves to underscore this idea, and also steers the film back on-message for its conclusion. But the power of this film is in its performances which, for many of the cast, are (sorry) Their Finest to date, even if their characters, as written, are a little thinly-sketched. Gemma Arterton sparkles as Mrs. Cole, a character with a refreshing, quiet assertiveness from the start, which is only further amplified as the film progresses, rather than being brashly mixed in. Sam Clafin, always so world-weary for one so young, does a lot with a little as Buckley, though it’s hard to fully understand the attraction to him beyond the fact that he looks like Sam Clafin; while Jake Lacy is hilarious in a small role as a proud puppet of patriotism, evoking memories of Alden Ehrenreich’s turn in Hail, Caesar in terms of his character’s on-screen abilities – or lack thereof.
Bill Nighy is somehow both a blessing and a curse to this film, pulling the central focus from Catrin Cole’s journey and the production of the film-within-a-film onto his own arc, in which the veteran British star Ambrose Hilliard comes to terms with his waning stardom and final acceptance of his place in the grand scheme of things. He is, as ever, a force of nature; warm, witty, larger-than-life, and it’s a nice arc, but one gets the sense it grew rather larger than strictly necessary in an effort not to waste the procurement of Bill Nighy. He’s a ‘get’, but often in Their Finest, what he gets is more interesting than what Catrin is given to do.
Director Lone Scherfig is a deft hand at bittersweet romantic comedies drawn from popular source material (One Day, An Education) and this is well-paced, fluid direction. Even if some of the visual symbolism is occasionally heavy-handed and corny, it still looks terrific. It’s refreshing to see, too, a relatively straight treatment of the film-within-a-film, a device too often used for clumsy parallelism or easy ironic humour. What we get instead is sweet, funny and uplifting, and it’s easy to understand the pride Catrin takes in watching the finished product.
Optimistic, authentic, and featuring a dog, Their Finest meets the same brief as Catrin and Buckley’s script. Though it has arguably as much depth and originality as their archetypally-sketched story, it is beautifully-presented, gently enjoyable, and boasts career-best performances from its cast. Both textually and extra-textually, we get something greater than the sum of its parts: observing the film as a whole brings out Their Finest qualities.