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“Their Finest” – a touching historical piece that’s a damn fine movie about making movies

Their Finest movie review

Nutshell: With hints of the charming, hopeful UK propaganda films of WWII, Their Finest can be labeled a comedy, but doesn’t shy away from showing the agonies of wartime Britain.  A powerful, sweet, and sometimes heartbreaking comedy. In this instance, yes that makes perfect sense. Grade: A

“Don’t confuse facts with truth, and for God’s sake don’t let either get in the way of a story.”

Story: It’s 1940. Catrin Cole and her husband are in London during the Blitz.  To stay in London, Catrin takes a job at the Ministry of Film, not realizing that her job is actually to help write the films they make. When Catrin finds out a true story about the Dunkirk Evacuation is less than the myth, she decides to embellish. Cue the war behind the camera…aaaaaand? ACTION!

Genre I’d put it in: Historical Films That Are Sweet, Funny, Heartbreaking, And Sweet Again

Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on Lissa Evans novel Their Finest Hour and a Half.

Gotta say: Not often am I pleasantly surprised when a film I’ve been interested in seeing is actually a bit different that what I’d anticipated.  But Their Finest is a wonderful story in the vein of Call the Midwife, with a bit more tribulation, and humor. A blend of WWII “home front” tale and “let’s make a movie” romp, it’s two, two, two treats in one!  And that adds up to a satisfying, emotionally compelling film.

Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant and a slew of others, work together as almost an ensemble, with Arterton’s “Mrs. Cole” and Claflin’s Tom Buckley taking the lead by a nose.  Then there’s Nighy, as Ambrose Hilliard, the haughty gasbag actor with delusions of grandeur, as well as an over-inflated sense of his career. It could have been a bombastic ham-fest, but Nighy knows just when to pull back and not swamp the audience.  And it’s honestly worth the price of admission just to see Jeremy Irons, as the Secretary of War, recite Henry V.  It’s basically a cameo, but it’s absolutely swoon-worthy for Shakespeare nerds. We happy few!

Stirling’s “Ginger Viper” – Catrin and Tom’s co-worker who’s the office hardass – keeps everyone on schedule, whether they’re anywhere near it or not. But the Viper (aka Phyl Moore) is also truth in a beautifully cut pantsuit.  She tells Catrin that men will be scared that women won’t “go back to their boxes” once the war is over.  Nighy’s Hilliard echoes that sentiment later, hinting that fleeting opportunities that come in times of crisis should be grasped firmly, even though they may come because of the direst of circumstance. With the view of hindsight in our corner, we know that that’s just what happened, at least for the ladies.  But while the war is on, in Their Finest, there’s plenty of all-for-one spirit.  Ahh, the good ol’ days?

There’s lots of excellent dialogue here, especially the back-and-forth between Arterton’s Catrin and Claflin’s Tom.  The comedic chemistry between these two is a delight.  At times there are hints of His Gal Friday, and that’s good stuff boys and girls.  That’s thanks in large part to whipsmart writing by Caby Chiappe (EastEnders, The Paradise) as well as Lissa Evans’s original story. Who can blame ’em; they’re screenwriters writing about screenwriters.  Should be easy, right?  Uh, not every film about film-making is good.  But these two – along with director Lone Scherfig (An Education) – make it look easy.

The film itself looks good too.  Set design gives a real-world vibe to the surroundings.  Not everything is pristine and spotless; there are crowded apartments, flats damaged by airstrikes, and dust everywhere after a German attack.  But the screenwriter office (they all share one, and it’s a cramped, messy affair) is a sanctuary, with lovely filtered light and warm, inviting wood desks. Cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov (Miss Sloane) doesn’t go for the sweeping epic look, but instead provides an intimacy to the surroundings that plays well with Sherfig’s balance of drama and comedy.

This film digs into life during the Blitz; dull repetition interspersed with moments of terror and heartbreak.  While plaster falls and dust settles, Our Gang type on, and brush away the debris.  They’re aware of what’s going on, but they also have hope that what they’re doing will benefit the fight.

A scene where Catrin gets caught up in a raid while she’s on the streets of London is filled with shock, horror, relief…and shock again.  It’s beautifully done, and its look at civilians living through WWII while being in the thick of it is feels authentic and relatable.  In fact, the entire films plays out as a story of those who helped the effort without donning a uniform.

Tip of the historical hat to things like the wage gap between men and women. “Obviously, we can’t pay you as much as the chaps.” And to our American adrenaline addiction, which is justly mocked here, while itself being used as a nudging point to stir up American sentiment. There’s also a wink at America’s love affair with machismo, and how that plays out when an American actor has got to pull on heartstrings.  It’s brief, it’s sly, but it works and had me chuckling.

So in the end, how do you sell a retreat?  The men and women working on their Dunkirk propaganda film decide that it’s more than the obvious; at it’s heart it’s a story of individual heroics during the worst of times.  The same can be said of Their Finest.

#Protip: I know I should plop down something about this film here.  But honestly?  Do yourself a favor and check out Gemma Artheton in 2007’s girl’s school comedy St. Trinian’s.  You’re welcome.

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Denise Kitashima Dutton
Denise has been covering books, movies and music since 2003. She's hoping she'll get the hang of it any day now.