by Joanna van der Veen
London,1940s. The Blitz is at its height and morale is at an all-timelow. How can the British government inspire hope and solidarity amongst its citizens? Through cinema, of course!
In Their Finest (2017), Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a young woman transplanted from Ebbw Vale to London via a love affair with a moody painter (Jack Huston). Struggling to make ends meet, she applies for what she thinks is a secretarial job at the Ministry of Information. Instead, she ends up as a copywriter for “the slop” (women’s dialogue) in the supposedly morale-boosting propaganda shorts produced by their Film Department. She turns out to have a flair for writing, and is quickly picked up to work on a feature-length film alongside the cynical but (to this reviewer’s mind) oddly endearing Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin).
And, from then on in, Their Finest is essentially a film about making a film: the rest of the piece is structured around the production of their feature, from the battle to produce the script to a shoot in Devon to bureaucratic and borderline ridiculous demands from the upper echelons of the government (delivered via a fantastic and somewhat self-parodying Jeremy Irons). The resulting film is equal parts comedy, drama and romance – and it’s absolutely fantastic.
The plot is based on a novel by Lissa Evans and trips along somewhat predictably, but it’s a joy to watch it unfold. Though built around the production of the film and the relationship between Cole and Buckley, one of Their Finest’s strengths is the range and charisma of the supporting characters (and cast). Bill Nighy plays an aging and arrogant buffoon of an actor, and his performance is relentlessly entertaining. A sub-plot revolving around his relationship with his agent (Eddie Marsan), his agent’s sister (Helen McCrory) and his agent’s dog is heart-warming, tinged with sadness and hilarious all at once. Rachael Stirling is impressive as sharply dressed Ministry executive Phyl Moore, who goes some way to helping Cole find her feet in a man’s world.
The dialogue is sharp, witty and never boring. Humour is definitely the film’s strong suit, but it’s paired with rapid changes of tone (this is the Blitz, after all), realistic characters and a lot of heart. The shadow of war is never far away and, like the people watching the film that the crew in Their Finest come up with, you may well be in floods of tears by the time the credits roll.
Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education, 2009) has created a true gem: funny without being silly, clever without being patronising and moving without being twee. At a certain point, Buckley says that what he really wants to do is make a film that’s worth the cinema entrance fee, and the time moviegoers spend watching it. The team behind Their Finest has done precisely that. Is it too soon to go a second time?
Joanna van der Veen / Writer (London, UK – 1990) Joanna splits her time between freelance translation, writing and working for a local urban regeneration project. She loves films that err a little bit on the strange side, and previously worked for a multi-language radio station dedicated to independent cinema, attending a whirlwind of film festivals from London to Mar del Plata.