Synopsis – A former secretary, newly appointed as a scriptwriter for propaganda films, joins the cast and crew of a major production while the Blitz rages around them.
My Take – Like me if you are tired of the constant remakes & big budgeted flicks with no soul (yet enough entertainment), this Lone Scherfig directed film is the one for you. Missing its screening at last year’s Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF 2016), this film has been on my watch list ever since its inception, mainly as I have thoroughly enjoyed Danish director Lone Scherfig‘s previous films like An Education and The Riot Club. A throwback to films of another era, this film is one of several recent films that remediate women’s conspicuous absence from war history. Other than being just an entertaining, funny, cute, and unique and a great look at early Hollywood during World War 2, the film manages to stands tall in the war genre & mainly due to its excellent cinematography nostalgically evokes the tensions and deprivations of London in 1940. At the same time, it provides an instructive insight into the making of a war propaganda film in the early days of film history. Even if you are in the mood for a romantic British WWII drama, you cannot go wrong with this one. Based on author Lissa Evans‘s novel, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, the story follows Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), who along with her husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a struggling disabled artist, moves from South Wales to London at the height of the Blitz and gets a job at the Ministry of Information Film Division. Though initially dismissed and assigned to write what was referred to as “slop”, women’s dialogue, Catrin gains respect when she brings in a stirring ‘true’ tale of derring-do about the Dunkirk evacuation to the Ministry’s attention, the perfect film to spread Nationalism among its citizens in a war torn country. However, when the brief for the film grows to include appealing to women and inspiring the US public to get behind the war effort, Catrin becomes indispensable, despite butting heads with head of the team, Buckley (Sam Claflin), hard-nosed writer.
Things begin to complicate as aging & once charismatic actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), who initially believes he deserves a better role, more credit & more respect than he is initially receiving begins to cause trouble on the set, plus in order to gain some American audience, the Secretary of War (Jeremy Irons in a cameo) insists that they cast in Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy), an American airman in the lead role. Between struggling to make the film, ‘The Nancy Starling’, worthy of raising the nation’s spirits, Buckley & Catrin begin to develop feelings adding more complication to an already stressful mix. The film is very coherent, with simple yet relatable and sympathetic characters, the story moves forward as a reaction of the universe and is not necessarily character-driven, with conflict usually being originated from authority figures such as the producers/the studio. The film not only uses the war to drive the plot forward and smartly show how it constantly affects the characters, but also makes a statement on how studios and producers control the creative process to win the audience’s approval and give a positive image of the allies. The humor of the film is simple and sometimes silly in a way that it does not always add anything to the story. It is practically impossible to deny that propaganda films had a major impact on both civilians and military personnel during World War II. But just how were those films made, and how could they affect the morale of the general public who viewed them? This is a World War 2 comedy/drama telling a tale I haven’t seen told before: the story behind the British Ministry of Information and their drive to produce propaganda films that support morale and promote positive messages in a time of national crisis. Unfortunately the Ministry is run by a bunch of fools, and their output is laughably misaligned with the working class population, and especially the female population: with their husbands fighting overseas, these two groups are fast becoming one and the same. For women are finding and enjoying new empowerment and freedom in being socially unshackled from the kitchen sink. The film shows Catrin’s blossoming from secretary into excellent screenwriter and from a subservient position in her affair with a painter into independence. The typist grows into writer. The female characters’ incidental conversation, what the male writers call “slop,” develops into the work’s emotional heart, especially when Catrin provides the film’s close and her new career sustains her in the face of both her romantic losses. As the film intercuts scenes behind the making of the film with clips from that film itself we get a constant layering of reality and its simulations. Often a supposedly real-life scene appears staged, like the set in Hilliard’s visit to Catrin’s bare flat. Real-life dialogue breaks into script-like eruptions, like most of Hilliard’s and Buckley’s quips, life spoken by an actor and a writer respectively. Plus of course art enhances reality, for example, the twin sisters of the film are livelier, prettier and more successful than the shy girls whose failed adventure inspired the film and the handsome dashing American pilot imposed on the film for American interest is carefully trimmed and packaged, in effect disguised, to be effective. When Catrin finally goes to see her film we see its audience — of course, a reflection of us as we watch the film about their film. Their emotions and engagement remind us of why we’re at that film along with their shared experience reflects ours. The script, by Gaby Chiappe, delivers the fine actors with plenty of well-wrought lines and subtle characterization, though I do wonder if it would have been better served with a bit more time, despite this being quite a long film. We do sometimes lurch from horror to banality, though it never loses sight of the deprivations of wartime. Sometimes the incongruity of the daily routine is brutally disrupted by the destructive, deadly bombing of the German Blitz.
Other times the day-to-day ho-hum routine of sheltering, working and even loving whilst at any moment a bomb could explode and end your life, is beautifully drawn. It just occasionally feels a bit rushed, or a bit ‘paint by numbers’. One wonders with a bit more running time if these various elements could have been blended together a bit more evenly. However this is nitpicking. There is no doubt that Lone Scherfig, the director, has delivered a fine film, balancing the horrors of wartime, the struggles of women to be accepted in a man’s world where most of the men are elsewhere, and a fine examination of the craft of 1940’s film-making. The making of a war film within a war film is an original and clever cinematic construction. The storyboarding, casting, and filming of the film provide self-reflexive insights into film-making itself. This is a multi-genre film, combining war and filmmaking history, period drama and romance, but it’s inaccurate to call it a comedy. Most of the humor comes from Bill Nighy‘s portrayal of the pompous British artistic classes and his fading light as an actor. Beyond the romance and the mechanics of early filmmaking, the art of writing is satisfactorily treated, in fact one of the first times I have seen it depicted as a communal effort. Besides, I love seeing ideas and dialogue worked out among the team without overly-dramatic flourishes but rather with the kind of quiet discovery that may have occurred with any successful team effort. The key fault for me was that the film seemed unsure which of its two main plot-lines, the making of “The Nancy Starling” and the romance between Catrin and Buckley, should take centre-stage. Developing both meant that the beginning and the end of the film suffered. Initially the film needed to introduce lots of only partially related themes and concepts, which made the opening scenes feel artificially and dissatisfyingly forced together. The need to conclude both threads produced more than a few false endings which certainly made the film feel its length. The competition between story-lines also meant that some of the supporting characters, particularly Jack Huston‘s suffering artist, did not receive the attention they needed to give enough weight to their plot contributions. Even Buckley, one of the key players, didn’t seem quite fleshed out enough, though this is not helped by the poor chemistry between Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton. However, the performances are, uniformly, fantastic. The very under rated British actress Gemma Arterton is delightful once again and carries the film on her shoulders with ease and with grace. She combines sweetness and steel in a measured, nuanced performance that is utterly winning. Sam Claflin, who after a forgettable turn in The Hunger Games franchise, has been experimenting with a variety of roles & like most of them is very again eminently watchable here. Veteran actor Bill Nighy is hilarious as the old and cranky actor, and brings some great and funny moments. In supporting roles, Helen McCrory, Eddie Marsan, Jake Lacy, Henry Goodman, Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, Paul Ritter & Jack Huston are likable. On the whole, ‘Their Finest’ is a worthy and compelling war drama, which despite its occasionally uneven tone works due to its intriguing premise, good acting & strong direction.
Directed – Lone Scherfig
Rated – R
Run Time – 117 minutes