Their Finest (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Making a propaganda film during the World War II

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In 2017, no less than three movies associated with the Battle of Dunkirk came out. While Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (2017) intensely focused on the battle itself, Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” (2017) observed the urgent political situation in Britain around that time, and then there was Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest”, which came out earlier but then, unfortunately, was quickly overshadowed by the other two films.

The story, which is based on “Their Finest Hour and a Half” by Lissa Evans, is mainly set in London in 1940. Since the Battle of Dunkirk, London and its citizens have suffered the frequent air raids by Nazi Germany, and the British government has accordingly tried to boost public morale and national pride during this very gloomy time, but its Ministry of Information has not had much success in making propaganda films as shown from the opening scene. It is apparent that they need someone who can not only write well but also give some fresh insight and perspective, and that person in question is Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a young woman who soon shows her considerable creativity and writing skill once she gets hired to work along with two male screenwriters who do not particularly welcome her at first.

One of them is Tom Buckely (Sam Claflin), and it does not take much for him and Catrin to develop a productive professional relationship as he comes to appreciate Catrin’s wit and talent more and more. At one point, he is quite impressed as watching how Catrin quickly makes some crucial modification on one particular dialogue scene in a short film they are working on, and then she is assigned to check out whether there is any good potential in a reported story about two brave twin sisters who allegedly sailed their father’s boat to Dunkirk just like many other civilians willingly going there for saving soldiers during that desperate time.

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Once she meets these two twin sisters, Catrin comes to learn that their story is not that inspiring at all, but she decides to make a good fictional tale out of their story anyway, because, well, their story is bound to be fictionalized in one way or another. She and her two colleagues soon embark on writing a suitable screenplay, and the Ministry of Information is ready to support the production of their movie, even after everyone comes to learn later that Catrin was not entirely honest in her report on the twin sisters’ story.

Of course, Catrin and her colleagues and superiors subsequently face a number of setbacks as preparing for the production of the movie. When the War Office demands some extra changes for making the film more appealing to American audiences, they have no choice but to follow the demand from the War Office. For instance, they have to include an American character in the movie, so they come to hire an American soldier who recently becomes famous thanks to his heroic deeds for the Royal Air Force, but, alas, he turns out to be a pretty bad actor, and that certainly becomes quite a big challenge for them when they begin to shoot the film in a rural beach town far from London.

Fortunately, Catrin finds an unlikely help from Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), an aging movie actor who was once quite popular but has been struggling a lot with the current downturn of his career. When his agent Sammy Smith (Eddie Marsan) suggested that he should play a rather shabby supporting role in the film, Hilliard was not particularly eager to play that role at first mainly because of his remaining pride, but he eventually agrees to accept the role thanks to his agent’s sister Sophie (Helen McCrory), a no-nonsense lady who takes over her brother’s business shortly after his unexpected death. Once Catrin promises to him that she will make his character richer and meatier, Hilliard gladly does some acting lesson for that American soldier, who surely gets improved a bit to everyone’s relief.

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Meanwhile, Catrin and Buckley become more drawn to each other as keeping working together, but there is one problem on her side. She is living with a struggling artist who has been her de facto spouse, and, though their relationship recently becomes quite strained, she is still willing to maintain their relationship as much as she can. How this difficult situation of hers is resolved later in the story will probably not surprise you much, but then the screenplay by Gaby Chiappe takes a sudden unexpected narrative turn, and that is the main reason why the finale, which is apparently influenced by Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travel” (1941), is quite poignant.

Steadily balancing the film well between melancholic wartime atmosphere and lightweight comic spirit, Scherfig, who previously made “An Education” (2009), draws good performances from its main cast members. While Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin click well with each other on the screen, they are surrounded by a bunch of dependable performers including Jack Huston, Helen McCroy, Eddie Marsan, Richard E. Grant, Jake Lacy, and Jeremy Irons, and the special mention must go to Bill Nighy, who steals the show as usual while effortlessly going back and forth between humor and pathos throughout the film.

Although it may look modest compared to “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour”, “Their Finest” is still enjoyable thanks to Scherfig’s competent direction and the engaging efforts from her cast and crew members, and I appreciate its fresh female perspective on a familiar historical subject. In short, it is good enough to make an interesting triple feature show along with “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour”, and I guess I should try that someday.

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