Their Finest

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Lone Scherfig

Starring

Bill Nighy Gemma Arterton Sam Claflin

Anticipation.

Lone Scherfig is a director who runs hot and cold. This one could go either way.

Enjoyment.

The first half is worryingly light, but matters really pick up in the final hour.

In Retrospect.

Grows into something special, powered forward by Arterton’s charming central turn.

Gemma Arterton gives Blighty a much-needed morale boost in this charming wartime comedy-drama.

During those unfortunate times when we are obliged to drop bombs on other countries, we tend to re up the propaganda machine as a way to justify our aggressions to the home team. Lone Scherfig’s delightful Their Finest, adapted by Gaby Chiappe from Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel, initially appears to trade on the puckish, deceitful language employed by artists attempting to convey a message of hope, false or otherwise.

It’s the early 1940s; tin helmets, whistles, powdered egg and all that. We swoop directly into the quaint inner sanctum of the British Ministry of Information, where serious men with side partings, round eyewear and toothbrush moustaches transform patriotic slogans into fanciful newsreels for mass consumption. Behind the scenes, the piston engines are ring on pure testosterone, from top brass right down to on-screen talent.

A chipper woman named Catrin (Gemma Arteton) enters the fray through a series of happy coincidences. She secures a fairly key position when asked if she can enhance the dialogue of key female characters in morale boosting quota quickies, but her unique sensitivities as a writer swiftly prove more vital to the war effort at large.

Their Finest sets out its stall as a lightest-of-light comic drama, the cinematic equivalent of a hearty enamel mug of Mellow Birds. Its aggressive cockle warming properties are occasionally so brazen that it almost asks to be written off as nostalgic fluff with a few passages from ‘My First Workplace Gender Politics’ thrown in for good measure. And just at the point of total desiccation, it transforms into a thoughtful, trenchant and penetrating wartime romance.

It’s strange how, for so long, all that Scherfig has to offer appears so familiar and uninteresting. Then, on a dime, she loads this unabashedly frivolous material with considerable heft and insight. She constantly loops back on herself, reinvigorates minor story threads and develops the drama in surprising ways.

Arterton plays it wide-eyed and Welsh as unflappable Catrin, her relaxed, supremely con dent and intuitive comic performance surely ranks as a career highlight. She brings no airs and graces to the role, showing that simple, unironic emotions when properly handled can work like gangbusters. A relationship percolates between Catrin and Sam Claflin’s cynical screenwriter, Tom. Their opposing views on the function of cinema, the horrors of war and the necessity of keeping that upper lip stiff eventually, inevitably allows them to form a deeper connection, even though she is essentially working solely to keep her wounded artist hubby in oils and canvas.

Yet the film ends up being less about cinema as a cheap form of escapist illusion, and more about how the daily dramas of life sometimes feel ripped directly from a juicy screenplay. The context of wartime intrigue takes a back seat to the idea that cinema has a strange way of affecting people in unintended ways. The film climaxes with the stirring declaration that a movie can exist not merely as a document of a moment in time, but as a glimmering monument to those who appeared in front of the camera – whether they wanted to or not.

Published 20 Apr 2017

Tags: Gemma Arterton Lone Scherfig World War Two

Anticipation.

Lone Scherfig is a director who runs hot and cold. This one could go either way.

Enjoyment.

The first half is worryingly light, but matters really pick up in the final hour.

In Retrospect.

Grows into something special, powered forward by Arterton’s charming central turn.

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