Funny, mov­ing war drama is year’s finest film

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - GARY THOMP­SON

T.S. Eliot wasn’t think­ing of movies when he wrote that April is the cru­elest month, but it ap­plies.

It’s the sea­son for dump­ing last year’s left­overs, and a pre­sum­mer clear­ance event for ti­tles of du­bi­ous com­mer­cial po­ten­tial.

So — to bor­row the lan­guage of Eliot’s coun­try­men — pre­pare to be gob­s­macked by the ter­rific Bri­tish im­port “Their Finest,” a smart, funny, and mov­ing pe­riod story of a woman (Gemma Arter­ton) who stum­bles into a job writ­ing the Sec­ond World War pro­pa­ganda movies. (Based on a novel by Lissa Evans).

War is rag­ing, Bri­tain is los­ing, the men are called away, and Mrs. Cole, as she’s called, ap­plies for what she thinks is a sec­re­tar­ial post at the Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion that turns into an as­sign­ment writ­ing “slop” (di­a­logue among fe­male char­ac­ters) for the min­istry’s film­mak­ing wing.

The min­is­ter (Richard E. Grant) is look­ing for stir­ring ma­te­rial to rally the coun­try’s sag­ging spir­its — “au­then­tic­ity with op­ti­mism,” he calls it. Mrs. Cole’s skill with slop be­comes key when the film­mak­ers spot a news­pa­per ac­count of two spin­ster sis­ters who bor­row their dad’s fish­ing boat and cross the chan­nel to res­cue Bri­tish troops at Dunkirk.

Mrs. Cole is sent to in­ter­view the women, and a great scene (one of many) fol­lows: The women are des­per­ately uncin­e­matic and painfully shy, and the news­pa­per ac­count is all wrong. But the three women con­nect, and she sees things that a man may have missed. The slop, she senses, is the movie. Most of the 30 mil­lion Bri­tish cit­i­zens at­tend­ing the cin­ema each week are women. They need their own stories. And prop­erly told, these stories would in­spire ev­ery­one. (It’s not in­ci­den­tal that “Their Finest” is writ­ten, di­rected, and scored by women. It’s not a stunt ei­ther that Lone Sher­fig, Gaby Chi­appe and Rachel Port­man have long ex­celled in the still-male world of film­mak­ing).

“Their Finest” has screw­ball­com­edy fun show­ing how the clever Mrs. Cole skil­fully nav­i­gates the all­male cul­ture of the film depart­ment — the men want to lard the story with stock male he­roes, and she fights deftly to pro­tect “her” char­ac­ters. The most amus­ing ob­sta­cle — Bill Nighy as a vain has-been star, now crammed into a sup­port­ing role. ( Jeremy Irons also has a vivid two min­utes as a stuffy aris­to­cratic min­is­ter who won­ders why Amer­i­cans think Eng­land is run by stuffy aris­to­crats.)

Most re­ward­ing, though, is the in­ter­play be­tween Arter­ton and Sam Claflin as head screen­writer Tom Buck­ley. It’s his ego that must be mod­i­fied to ac­count for Mrs. Cole’s grow­ing in­flu­ence over the project, which in­creases apace with her ever-more-ob­vi­ous tal­ent. This is a movie about un­sub­tle screen­writ­ing with a sub­tle script — it trusts Claflin and Arter­ton to project the sub­text hid­den in the words.

We see, through Claflin, that Buck­ley is at once threat­ened and thrilled — Mrs. Cole is his dis­cov­ery, his pro­tege, then his equal, and of course he’s fall­ing in love with her.

And of course Mrs. Cole is mar­ried — to a strug­gling painter ( Jack Hus­ton) whose brit­tle sup­port for her work starts to crack as she be­gins to see it as a ca­reer. This seems like a nod to melo­drama, but it’s more com­plex — their re­la­tion­ship sug­gests one art form giv­ing way to an­other.

He’s seek­ing a com­mis­sion for an ex­hi­bi­tion of paint­ings that com­par­a­tively few will see, that in any case will be hard-pressed to sum­mon the gal­va­niz­ing power of a well-made film (or song, as we see in one lovely scene), which Mrs. Cole’s slop is turn­ing out to be.

It’s a treat to watch the moviewithin-a-movie come to­gether — the process is of­ten funny, but the tragic at­tri­tion of the war on Lon­don­ers is on dis­play, and its shadow creeps over the char­ac­ters as “Their Finest” moves to­ward its ele­gant con­clu­sion (you’ll be glad the min­istry hired a doc­u­men­tary di­rec­tor for the job).

We see bits of the fin­ished film, but we also see rapt Bri­tish au­di­ences watch­ing it. We see the film­mak­ers them­selves amused by the ef­fect their movie has had, but also awed by it — in the chaos and cyn­i­cism of mak­ing a pro­pa­ganda movie, some­thing use­ful and even honourable has oc­curred.

A woman has been given a chance to find her voice, and she has given the coun­try a rea­son to en­dure an­other day or week of bomb­ing. It’s a movie about bat­tles worth fight­ing.

“Their Finest,” rated 14A, is play­ing at the West­dale The­atre Philadel­phia Inquirer


Gemma Arter­ton, left, plays a clever screen­writer who nav­i­gates the all-male cul­ture of the Bri­tish Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion’s film depart­ment in "Their Finest." Bill Nighy, right, plays a has-been star.

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