Director: Lone Scherfig
Stars: Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Sam Claflin
What is the purpose of populist cinema? It’s a question that Scherfig’s latest film pries into with industriousness as she brings Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel to cinemas via a screenplay from Gaby Chiappe. That all three creative driving forces behind this film are women is entirely fitting given the subject matter.
London, 1940. German bombers rain down carnage on the city with thudding repetition and at the Ministry Of Information’s film division a young writer, Catrin Cole (Arterton), is given the opportunity to pitch in by bringing her superiors the story of twin sisters who became embroiled in an adventure of patriotic bravery in the midst of Dunkirk. However, on interviewing the women, Cole learns that their story has been embellished by the press, leaving little to use as a factual call to arms to the movie-going masses. Nevertheless, a patriotic puff piece is required, so Cole is partnered with seasoned writers Tom Buckley (Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter) so that she can write the ‘slop’ (women’s dialogue) while they hammer out a fantasy story from the rubble of an inconvenient truth.
There’s a lot of good meat on the bone here, and it’s a credit to all involved that it doesn’t get scuppered in favour of the kind of jolly, knees-up, jingoistic, pro-war chest-beating that this so very easily could’ve become. The very presence of Bill Nighy as rakish luvvie Ambrose Hilliard pointed to the threat that this might be the case. Populist British cinema has an established habit of playing it misty eyed for the mentalities of days past in an effort to grab a schmaltzy quick win. But Their Finest rises above such easily attained goals and plays with its premise quite appealingly. While it does tick many of the boxes listed above, it does so with intelligence and with respect for its cluster of characters.
For the first act at least it plays exactly as you might expect. Arterton is terrific here. She has been quite vocal recently about changing how she is perceived through more gratifying and complex work, and Their Finest is about as ideal a calling card for her more focused ongoing career as she could’ve hoped for. Pluckily employing a Welsh accent, she leads the film well. Casting can muddle a period piece, but everyone here feels correct for the era (a great turn by Rachael Stirling strikingly recalls Moira Shearer). A shared sensibility perhaps or maybe they all just have the faces for it. Regardless, those around Arterton fit their roles well and Claflin provides some pleasing chemistry as the two young writers jostle for creative freedom.
Indeed, as the picture goes on the film starts to grow in its ambitions, from a twee little caper movie about a woman’s day at the office in the 1940’s into a flexible meditation on wartime romance, not to mention an almost meta examination on what it is we want from a movie like this. As the film being constructed within the film starts becoming a product made by committee to serve a roster of functions, one can’t help but watch Their Finest and wonder how many similar conversations occurred in the construction of the movie itself. Moments within the jumped-up story line being shot on the beaches of Devon or in the threatened studios of London are echoed in the lives of the people inventing them, giving Their Finest a kind of Russian doll effect. Life imitating art imitating life.
For the most part this provides a welcome level of canny playfulness, but it does allow the film to stretch out and even feel overlong. Events feel conspired against the characters at some turns, and a surprising late-film development feels a shade manipulative in order to fulfill this extra sketched-in level of self-awareness.
Things get slipperier still when it comes to the question of serving the truth, something which resonates in ways the film’s creators may or may not have particularly intended when production began. The idea that there is a greater truth to be found through embellishment or invention is a dangerous one as our current climate of fake news and biased misinformation attests. Contemporary examples are almost always created in an effort to create divisions between people. However, Their Finest argues an example whereby elaborated reality can be a tool of unification. Propaganda is by its very nature morally ambiguous. The characters here scarcely question the dangers of their work; their outcome is to serve a greater good therefore so be it. It takes the too-perfect shine off of the film. It doesn’t make the film feel troubled, but it sits there underneath everything. A question mark from the present.
Chiappe’s peppy script doesn’t get too sidetracked by the presence of these nourishing inquisitions, rather it allows space for them to be considered while the story still develops at a pace. Set aside such pondering and the film works and skips by as a wartime romance piece just fine. Scherfig (who can be a little unpredictable) has firm control over her film, and at it’s most exuberant it happily recalls some of the playfulness seen in the Coen Brothers’ recent ode to the golden era; Hail, Caesar! Nevertheless, this is an extremely British iteration which, while nodding to aforementioned complexities, not only provides the feel-good and the bittersweet, but also stands proudly for professional women in all walks of life. It may be a modestly sized production, but it’s a packed one, and one smart enough to ask us what we want from populist cinema, and, as we walk out of the theatre, whether we got it.