Their Finest

A deftly made crowd-pleaser that doubles as a tale of female empowerment.
Sarah Ward
April 20, 2017


War, what is it good for? That's a question Britain's Ministry of Information was tasked with answering in the 1940s. As English soldiers battled the Nazis across Europe, and the Germans dropped bombs on London during the Blitz, selling the merits of the Second World War to the broader public became increasingly difficult. When lives are being lost en masse and buildings are crumbling around you, the slogan "keep calm and carry on" — which was coined by the British government in 1939 — starts to seem a little less reassuring.

In Their Finest, Ministry filmmakers aren't just concerned with making rousing cinema. They're also keen to ensure that plausible dialogue comes out of the mouths of their female characters. This inspires them to hire Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) as a low-paid writer. Though keen, industrious and excellent at her job from the outset, she comes in particularly handy when bureaucrat Roger Swain (Richard E Grant), producer Gabriel Baker (Henry Goodman) and head writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) set their sights on adapting a true tale about two sea-faring sisters. The ladies in question took their dad's boat to help with the Dunkirk rescue efforts, or so the story goes. But when Catrin has a chat with the heroic twins, she discovers that reality is a little less exciting.

Still, you know the old adage: you can't let the facts get in the way of a good story. Propaganda filmmaking mightn't seem a likely candidate for a poignant exploration of the power of movies, a tender account of people trying to get by in tough times, and a romantic drama all rolled into one. Nevertheless, audiences who stick with Their Finest's initially awkward-seeming concept will be justly reward. There's plenty of sweetness, satire and insight inside — and a gentle yet clear rallying cry against sexism as well.

Indeed, director Lone Scherfig (An Education) and screenwriter Gaby Chiappe understand full well that pleasing the cinema-going crowds and smartly championing the power of women in the workforce aren't mutually exclusive goals. In adapting Lissa Evans' 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, they take the obvious approach, but do so with handsome period flair, an ample amount of heart, and an ability to seamlessly jump between comedic to serious moments.

Take Bill Nighy's involvement, for instance. The veteran actor plays just that, although his character is convinced he should be seen as a young romantic lead rather than older uncle. He's initially rolled out for laughs, but the movie doesn't treat him as a joke. Delving deeper into what its motley crew is facing as the war rages on around them sits at the very heart of this surprisingly nuanced film. And while Nighy doesn't ever steal the spotlight from the spirited Arterton, he provides a warm, witty and winning example of the kind of multi-layered movie the pair both find themselves making.


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