THEIR FINEST premiered in October 2016 at a film festival in Toronto, but it didn’t go into wide theatrical release until 2017, when, in yet another of movie history’s synchronous waves, it joined three other sagas about the beset Britain of 77 years ago. Unlike Churchill and Darkest Hour this doesn’t focus on the indomitable Winston, but it does cue its storyline off the events showcased in the biggest hit of the quartet, the epic Dunkirk.
Sensitively directed by Lone Scherfig, she displays a keen eye for nuance and detail, crafting 117 fully entertaining minutes. The endearing screenplay by Gaby Schiappe is based on the highly-regarded 2009 novel from Lissa Evans “Their Finest Hour And A Half”.
Those other films are written, directed by and starring men, doing stalwart manly things—there’s a war on: here, the nation-in-peril, buck-up-and-sally-forth spirit & sacrifice was written, directed by & stars women. The intriguing Gemma Arterton is the multi-tasked heroine, proving to her colleagues, suitors and mostly male ‘superiors’ that her wit, instincts, dedication and courage are more than equal to the call for “blood, toil, tears and sweat” issued from the concussed island’s growling but worried head bulldog. *
“It’s never for anything. Why do you think that people like films? It’s because stories are structured; have a shape, a purpose, a meaning; and when things gone bad they’re still a part of a plan; there’s a point to them. Unlike life.”
1940: the British Ministry of Information commissions a film production to spin the Dunkirk evacuation’s propaganda value, a go at turning a humiliating military catastrophe into a commercial for stiff upper pluck. Rescued, thanks to Adolf, from secretarial anonymity, quiet but determined ‘Catrin Cole’ (the smart, seductive Arterton) takes a misreported incident and turns it into “The Nancy Starling”, gradually impressing her cynical co-workers. (Q: is that title an in-joke?)
Imagining, casting, rewriting and shooting the “Nancy” involves clashes with acerbic fellow scenarist ‘Tom Buckley’ (Sam Claflin), dubious, fading leading man ‘Ambrose Hilliard’ (Bill Nighy, perfection), tart supervisor ‘Phyl’ (Rachael Stirling) and self-pitying artist/lover ‘Ellis’ (Jack Huston). The vain but good-hearted Hilliard has a second rung of characters in his circle. A camera-loving but talent-AWOL American (Jake Lacy) is added to give the fiction pitch some appeal across the Atlantic. They manage this while the Luftwaffe blitzes London.
“They’re afraid they won’t be able to put us back in the box when this is over, and it makes them belligerent.”
Beautifully balancing titters and tragedy, quips and rue, carnage and caprice (‘hearts & minds’ to use a war-wounded phrase), the story—and the delightfully corny movie-within-movie—plays winning whist throughout. The only other film I’ve yet seen from Danish director Scherfig was her first, from 2000, the Dogme 95-style ‘comedy’ Italian For Beginners, which I approached with high expectations on strong recommendation—and absolutely detested every dead-on-arrival minute of it. After this beaut, I’m re-keen to catch the five she made in between. **
“He is an actor. Unless you have reviewed him, had intercourse with him, or done both simultaneously, he won’t remember you.”
The cast chemistry is spun gold. Costumes, sets, props and period atmosphere a lock. The script is filled with pithy humor, leavened with pathos of injured dignity and the numbing pain of sudden loss. Two lovely old songs are an extra bonus: “You Can’t Black Out The Moon” and “Will You Go, Lassie, Go”. A pip all round: its complicated, human-sized characters and the fondness shown them reminds me of Brooklyn: it has the same rewarding warmth. Though the arc has a proto-feminist trajectory, the knowing screenplay and compassionate treatment doesn’t insult realism by having its people spout anachronistic modern era ripostes: the subtext of gender inequality is addressed with a rose instead of a cactus. In the manner of recent films as varied as The Imitation Game, Hidden Figures and Transamerica it wisely has its cake by not insisting you choke on the portion. ***
“Wonderful! Authenticity, optimism and a dog!”
With Richard E. Grant, Henry Goodman, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, Lily & Francesca Knight and Jeremy Irons. Done on a budget of $11,870,000, the grosses amounted to only $12,277,000, with just $3,596,000 claimed in the States. Dunkirk, meanwhile, cost ten times the amount and took in 43 times as much, showing more people prefer to line up for explosions over empathy: good thing we don’t fall for hype or propaganda…
* As a certain ‘exceptional’ Empire is finding out in quick-time, being overextended and arrogant breeds complacency and catastrophe. England may have Ruled the Waves and colored “all the red bits” on the map, but in WW2 their generals and Army had their bums handed to them on a platter, in France and around the Mediterranean by Hitler, and big-time in Malaysia and Burma by the casually dismissed Japanese. While Winston Churchill gets the Lion’s share of glory for holding the fort, and the valiant RAF held the Aryan wolf at bay, it was the fortitude of the civilian population that rallied to get those men off the beach, endured the Blitz and, in myriad ways like the one shown in this movie, saved themselves—and quite possibly the rest of us. Salute Mrs. Miniver, Went The Day Well?, The Gentle Sex, Millions Like Us and the grand Hope And Glory.
** Hats off, chaps, and stand back, you lot. Stout-hearted Men (cold-hearted/black-hearted) may make most wars, but women and children pay too much of the unacknowledged price. The refreshing, predominately feminine take here from Ms. Scherfig & gals also
manned femmed the production line with Rosie Riveters in the duties of producer (Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey & Elizabeth Karlsen), composer (Rachel Portman on the suitably moving score), editor (Lucia Zuchetti) and production design (Alice Normington). If this keeps up, that infernal vote will follow….
*** Good quote from the essential Bill Nighy: “They were looking for someone to play a chronically self-absorbed actor in his declining years, and they thought of me, which is something that’s easier to process on some mornings rather than others.” Arterton’s ‘Catrin’ was based on Welsh playwright Diana Morgan (1908-1996), the only female to work in the writing department of Ealing Studios during the 1940’s, often laboring uncredited. Speaking of class-act’s, co-star Stirling is the daughter of a treasured trouble-shooter for the Empire, ‘Emma Peel’, aka Dame Diana Rigg. Co-star Jack Huston proves talent runs generations deep in his august tribe.