It’s always great to hear we will be treated to a movie co-starring Bill Nighy. He joins star Gemma Arterton and co-star Sam Claflin in a charming, bittersweet dramedy opening in arthouses this weekend called Their Finest, about a woman living in World War II London who takes a job as screenwriter for a propaganda feature film called Dunkirk. Exciting, as well, to know Their Finest is helmed by a female director, Lone Scherfig, written by women, Gaby Chiappe and Lissa Evans, and features a female scoring artist, editor, and production designer. Thank Goddess, apart from a few flaws, it’s also really good.
Welsh gal Catrin Cole (Arterton) is married to a struggling fine artist (Jack Huston), and they live in a small flat in London circa 1940. She applies for and gets a job assisting screenwriter Tom Buckley (Claflin) by punching up what he called “the slop”, the female dialogue, on a morale-boosting film about Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. They are beholden to the British Ministry of Information, which is constantly guard-dogging their dialogue and storyline, to make sure it’s optimistic and patriotic enough. Their film includes a role for aging matinee idol and narcissist Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy), who is a consistent fly in the ointment, as are his agents, and the various members of the Ministry. Catrin deals with her own romantic entanglements and attractions, her husband’s displeasure at her becoming the breadwinner, and her desire to be part of creating a film with the power to inspire her fellow countrymen and women in their time of trial.
Arterton is so winning as Catrin Cole, she would be reason enough to see the film. Her beauty, I think, seems to have been a limitation for her in the roles she’s gotten, because she is a very fine actress, and here she has the opportunity to show her range. Nighy nearly steals the film away with each entrance, which is perfectly in keeping with his character. Claflin plays a cynic who needs an infusion of idealism, but is trapped in a time when representations of idealism are hard to come by, especially with people being killed by bombs on a daily basis.
The movie has its share of sentimentality, and sometimes dips into the maudlin. It also suffers from not fully leveraging the chemistry between the romantic leads. There are two secondary characters that are pretty one dimensional, although I appreciate having the 40s version, or really any version, of an “out-and-proud” lesbian, in Rachael Stirling’s Phyl Moore. Huston, as Catrin’s husband Ellis, plays a role we’ve definitely seen from him before, but a war film about a married working woman, struggling to help pay the rent her painter husband can’t afford, has to have its unsympathetic sexist, and it fell to Huston to play him. To be fair, that was the experience of a number of women of the time.
Still, all the actors are magnetic for themselves enough to carry us through, especially Arterton, Claflin, and Nighy, who can always be depended upon to keep our attention, even given the diversity of the roles they inhabit.
You know how it goes. It’s a delightful charmer, until it isn’t. This is, after all, World War II. Have Kleenex on-hand, and be prepared for more than a little darkness. Then expect to witness the formidable Brit perseverance and gumption that those who survived mustered from little more than a strong cup of tea.