Their Finest proves war is heck
If you’re curious about Christopher Nolan’s upcoming movie Dunkirk but not certain you can handle the brutality of his take on the Second World War, here’s a jolly good way to ease into the subject.
Lone Scherfig, a Danish director who’s very much at home in Britain (see An Education, One Day, The Riot Club), has taken Lissa Evans’s 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half and made a longer film with a shorter title.
As it opens, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is working in London as an advertising copywriter when her way with words comes to the attention of the Ministry of Information.
She also gets noticed by Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) after she’s hired to help write the screenplay for a propaganda film about the evacuation of Dunkirk. (The 1940 operation rescued more than 300,000 Allied troops stranded behind enemy lines in France.)
The film is meant to both
bolster British morale and help convince the U.S. to enter the war — hence the inclusion of an improbable American character, played by Carl Lundbeck (a pretty terrible actor), played in turn by Jake Lacy (a handsome good one). Catrin’s job is to write the “slop,” or women’s dialogue — a nice bit of irony when you consider that the director of Their Finest, the novel’s author and the screenwriter (Gaby Chiappe) are all female.
The film within the film also stars a past-his-prime actor played by Bill Nighy, who does doddering so well it’s a surprise to find he’s not yet 70. He is worth the price of admission, if only for the scene in which he utters the words “semolina pudding” in a way that makes it sound like the film should have a restricted rating. (It doesn’t.)
But the main story here is the slowly budding romance between Tom and Catrin, complicated somewhat by the fact that she has a cold-fish husband. (And for sociolinguists by her sometimes wavering Welsh accent.) Don’t worry: The Luftwaffe doesn’t drop a thousand pounder on him, although the way the movie deals with him is almost as efficient.
“Authenticity and optimism” is the motto of the propaganda department, and Their Finest takes a similar tack. So we get a couple of scenes of death and devastation to remind us that this is England during the Blitz, after all. But for the most part it’s a sanitized war, shot in army green and nostalgic sepia tones, in which most problems can be solved with a cup of tea.
The result is a sometimes bloodless picture, emotionally as well as physically, but it’s clear that this is just what the director ordered. Scherfig is looking to make a forgettable lighthearted comedy-romance, and in that respect she has succeeded. If you want something grittier, there’s always Dunkirk.
Gemma Arterton stars in Their Finest.