Charming ‘Their Finest’ is a morale booster


“Their Finest” is a treat that has something on its mind, a charming concoction that adds a bit of texture and bite to the mix. Genial and engaging with a fine sense of humor, it makes blending the comic with the serious look simpler than it actually is.

Starring a radiant and assured Gemma Arterton, a convincing Sam Claflin and a criminally funny Bill Nighy, “Their Finest” also believes in the magic inherent in the medium, that film can set you free. Though movies about the movies are a staple of Hollywood cinema, this overseas version turns out to be just as persuasive.

As its title referencing the famous Winston Churchill speech indicates, “Their Finest” is set in Britain during the early days of World War II. All its actors are British, but its director is assured Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig, whose credits include such marvelous items as “Italian for Beginners” and “An Education.”

Working from screenwriter Gaby Chiappe’s adaptation of Lissa Evans’ puckishly titled novel “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” Scherfig has turned in a confident job of direction, briskly moving things along and adroitly layering the smart comedy and boy-girl romance with points about the romance of career and the importance of self-realization and being allowed to dream your dream.

None of those things were items women could take for granted in the London of 1940. Even though, with so many men off fighting the war, women were doing all kinds of jobs they’d never done before, their self-reliance made society nervous. Or, as one character succinctly puts it, “The men are scared we won’t go back into our boxes when this is over.”

From the first moments we see Arterton’s confident Catrin Cole striding down a London street on the way to a job interview, it’s clear that being in a box is not on her agenda. From this introduction to the final fade out, Catrin’s every inch a hero it’s a pleasure to believe in.

Though she thinks she’s interviewing for a secretarial position, something entirely different is on offer. As we’ve seen in an earlier scene, Britain is going through something of a propaganda crisis: Films intended to bolster home-front morale are so unrealistic they’re being practically laughed off the screen.

These kinds of movies present definite challenges. As Roger Swain (a fine Richard E. Grant), head of the Ministry of Information’s film division, says, they need to embody “authenticity informed by optimism,” a difficult combination to pull off.

Experienced screenwriter Tom Buckley (Claflin, best known for the “Hunger Games” franchise) has noticed some advertising copy Catrin has written (it was on the newspaper that wrapped his fish and chips) and thinks she would be just the person to write convincing women’s dialogue, derisively known in the trade as “the slop.”

Catrin is delighted at the opportunity, but husband Ellis Cole (Jack Huston) is not so sure. A left-wing artist caught up in the drama of his own creative career, Ellis keeps wanting to pack her off outside the city when the bombing of London gets dangerous. Catrin, though, cares too much about the work to go.

Not that her situation is always pleasant, especially not the jibes of Buckley, her cynical writing partner who insists on archly addressing her as Mrs. Cole. But Buckley does care about the movies, and that marks him as one of the good guys.

Always on the lookout for possible feature material, the team sends Catrin to investigate twin sisters who participated in the large-scale Dunkirk rescue mission. The reality turns out to be less than glamorous, but several factors, including an intervention by the secretary of war (a wonderful Jeremy Irons cameo), conspire to turn the sisters’ story into a go picture, defined by Buckley as “real life with the boring bits left off.”

How that film gets made and how the process affects private lives is a fairly complex story with lots of moving parts and peripheral characters, yet “Their Finest” screenwriter Chiappe, a 20-year TV veteran doing her first feature, has the experience to expertly orchestrate it all.

As good as Arterton is, and she is splendid, the one irreplaceable performer in the film is costar Nighy, who displays complete comic mastery in the role of Ambrose Hilliard, an egregious ham with an enormous ego who fears his best days as an actor are behind him. No one does these kinds of roles better than Nighy, memorable in “Love Actually,” “Pirate Radio” and many others, and this performance is one of his best.

Though most of “Their Finest” is intended in fun, the film is careful to provide periodic bleak moments when the war claims victims, sometimes taking the lives of people we’ve come to care about. It’s a tough balancing act to manage, but this is the group that has the chops to pull it off.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Movies & TV

Brussels sprouts can be the apple of picky eater's eye
Brussels sprouts can be the apple of picky eater's eye

Roasting Brussels sprouts until they are deeply browned and their outer leaves have crisped is one of the most enticing ways to cook them. The method has turned around countless Brussels sprout naysayers, including my husband, who gobbles them up prepared this way but cannot stand them steamed. The accompanying recipe builds on that trusty basic, adding...
Small changes for the new year
Small changes for the new year

It's January, and in most of the country, too cold to think about taking a walk outside to get our steps for the day in. Yet, we've all made those New Year's Resolutions to eat healthier, move more and take charge of our health. We're excited about making a fresh start. It's so easy to get derailed and feel defeated. Baby steps are the way to go when...
Do parents make kids fat?
Do parents make kids fat?

As parents, do we determine our children’s eating habits? There’s a lot of blame when it comes to childhood obesity, eating disorders and body image problems, but how much do we actually know about what works to help children eat and grow in a healthy way? Back in November, I wrote about the issue of fat stigma, and the bad things that...
What’s on the menu for 2018? Check out these food trends
What’s on the menu for 2018? Check out these food trends

It’s amusing — and instructive — to scan the food and dining trend forecasts that pop up at the beginning of each new year.  Let’s start by agreeing that the following information doesn’t necessarily enjoy an enduring relationship with reality.   Which is why it’s called “forecasting.”...
5 ways to realistically change your poor eating habits
5 ways to realistically change your poor eating habits

Many people consider a new relationship with food in the new year.  But beginning an Instagram-popular diet like Whole 30, or trying to reduce your sugar intake, often seems intimidating with all it requires. Reading and listing all those ingredients. Dedicating time at the grocery store. Cooking regularly.   Last week, U.S. News & World...
More Stories