Their Finest proves war is heck

Montreal Gazette - - MOVIES - CHRIS KNIGHT

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.

NI­COLA DOVE/STX EN­TER­TAIN­MENT

Gemma Arter­ton stars in Their Finest.

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