Britain, in the early years of the Second World War, has been mythologised almost ad nauseam. In the Fifties, we had the war being refought by John Mills and Richard Todd (a Para during the war and part of the relief unit at Pegasus Bridge) and just about every British actor of note. But during the war, some very specific patriotic film were made to bolster the war effort. After a bumpy start by the Ministry of Information they created some classics, such as Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve and, a personal favourite I’ve written in the past, Leslie Howard’s Spitfire movie, The First of the Few. But, these films are some of the rare exceptions and the usual level of Informational films was laugh inducing. This is environment that Lissa Evans’ novel and the film adaptation of Their Finest takes place.
With the men away at war, women are getting the chances that they had never been allowed before. When Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) takes her chance in her advertising agency to write a bit of dialogue for a cartoon, she is spotted by film screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Catrin is brought into the Ministry of Information to write and jazz up “The Slop”, the term they use for woman’s dialogue in the films they are producing. With London reeling under The Blitz and still recovering from the Fall of France and Dunkirk, there is a need to capitalise on the miracle of the evacuation. The film team at the MoI notice a story about two twin sisters who stole their father’s boat and went to Dunkirk. Catrin is dispatched to gather the facts, which turn out to be that twins only got five miles out before their boat died. Disappointed that the facts don’t quite add up, Catrin spins the tale and the film is put into production. Their Finest goes on to tell the story of the production of a rousing war film about ordinary people pitching in to do their bit. Throw in the most Bill Nighy possible performance from Bill Nighy as the fading actor Ambrose Hillard, a great turn by the ever wonderful Helen McCrory and Jack Huston being the not so loyal love interest (if you listen carefully you can hear the whispering of “typecasting” getting louder for poor Jack) of Catrin, you have a pretty special cast. But the film really hangs on superb performance by Gemma Arterton. She remains forceful and intelligent throughout and you root for Catrin, who spends rather a big part of the film typing.
Their Finest does that difficult thing of being funny about a period and reverential about it at the same time. The film they are making we all know, we grew up watching them every Saturday and Sunday afternoon on BBC Two for over half a century. Yet, you still will the film into production and onto the screen for the war weary to see it. And above it all is Gemma Arterton. Her performance is subtle, humorous, strong and committed. This allows the rest of the cast to provide the lightening of the film, which is not to say Arterton isn't funny, she is. Rachel Sterling as the lesbian “spy” from the Ministry, Phyl and Jake Lacy as the American fighter ace shoehorned into the film to get the Americans on side, and who can’t act, provide great support and allows Bill to go full Bill Nighy. Nighy is great but he can get carried away, pushing him slight back here and having him popping up to annoy Arterton’s Catrin allows for it work so well.
Their Finest is wonderful. It manages to carry the pathos of the terrible era within which it is set and yet brings superb humour and that stiff upper lip one would expect. Seeing it with my daughter and both of us agreeing that Their Finest was a great trip to the cinema (with excellent cast and crew Q&A at the BFI screen we went to and where Gemma spoke to me, well answered my question, but that is still speaking to me despite what my daughter says), is one of those increasingly rare occasions where a film happily sits across generations and manages to please all.
Their Finest is released in the UK on Friday 21st April 2017.