Film review: Their Finest

David Gritten / 20 April 2017

David Gritten salutes Their Finest, an outstanding British film set in the Blitz.

I can imagine other films this year might impress me more with their technical mastery, with the brilliance of their direction or cinematography. Who knows, there may be a couple with more memorably outstanding performances by actors. But I cannot for a minute imagine that there will be a film released in 2017 of which I’m fonder than Their Finest.

It’s a top-notch British film set in 1942 London, where Luftwaffe bombs are raining down on its citizens most nights.  But the central characters are members of a screenwriting unit, charged with devising a rousing, sentimental film about ordinary people that will raise the spirits and strengthen the patriotism of the millions of Britons who will see it – while also sending a message to American movie fans that Britain badly needs US support in winning the war.   

That makes it an unorthodox account of war, and it’s one that’s played partly for laughs. But that’s only half the story here. Beside the comedic elements in Their Finest, there is a lovely romance - and also an ever-present sense of danger and loss. We are never quite allowed to forget what a troubled, hellish time the Blitz really was.

Gemma Arterton plays Catrin, a young Welsh woman and a novice writer, drafted in to the all-male team to write women’s dialogue for the proposed film. Its other screenwriters are sceptical and so are her bosses, who of course pay her less than her male colleagues. It speaks volumes about the prevailing culture within the unit that the lines of female characters in the fictitious film are known as ‘slop.’

Still, Catrin is made of stern stuff, and soldiers on. One of the script writers, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) can be cruelly amusing at her expense, though rather charming at other times. Either way, she ignores him; she is already living with Ellis (Jack Huston) a talented if self-absorbed artist on the verge of a career breakthrough.   

The film gradually takes shape in script form, with the unit bring urged on by a government minister (Jeremy Irons) hilariously delivering a Shakespearean soliloquy in an over-the-top attempt to inspire them. (There’s a genuine real-life parallel here: our government’s Department of Information was influential in deciding the stories of films that might be useful for propaganda purposes and would thus get made.)

The film is cast, and includes a total novice – a young, handsome square-jawed U.S. Army war hero who cannot act to save his life, but whose presence will cause American women watching the film to go weak-kneed with delight. The other key cast member is one Ambrose Hilliard, a vain, effete older actor, once well known but now past his best, though quick with a bitchy retort. Ambrose is played by Bill Nighy, who simply steals every scene in which he appears; this is a sublime performance, arguably a career best for the talented, popular Nighy.

Director Lone Sherfig marshals her cast with great expertise, shaping this delightful, deceptively complex film. Their Finest has a lot of truths to tell, and it does so vividly. War is hell, but it can also bring people together. Under life-and-death pressure, apparently selfish folk can find streaks of generosity in themselves. The film also has something to say about the communal comfort of sitting in the dark of a cinema, watching a heart-warming film surrounded by hundreds of other entranced people. At the end of Their Finest, you’ll know that feeling yourself.

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