The template for period British dramatic comedies has been well worn in films such as Brassed Off, The Full Monty and Pride – in which a bunch of down on their luck Brits come together to do something great in the face of great political adversity. Adversity in these films is nearly always Thatcherism, but that British sense of character, or coming together, definitely comes from ‘that WW2 Blitz spirit’ or that ‘Dunkirk’ spirit, in which normal everyday people are forced together to do something profound under the hue of gathering storm clouds.
Their Finest is that kind of movie by general association, though this time actually set during the Blitz of World War 2. It is a wartime drama directed by Lone Scherfig (An Education), adapted for screen by Gaby Chiappe from the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half originally written by Lissa Evans. It stars Gemma Arterton, Sam Caplin and Bill Nighy as a rag tag bunch of British film makers who during the height of the London bombings are contracted to make a movie based around the evacuation of Dunkirk in the hopes that it will elicit the heart and minds of the Americans and help influence the US to join the war against Hitler.
Art with a specific political purpose. Propaganda you might say.
This is a story that is largely told by women, about a time where women were occupying the roles of the men who were away fighting overseas. It’s directed with much grace by Schefig, it at once feels cosy but at the same time the darkness of war and the nightly destruction of the Blitz does seep into everyday life in harrowing ways.
Gemma Arterton exists front and centre as Catrin Cole, a secretary who proves to have a knack for writing which leads her to land an opportunity writing the movie based on. Arterton carries much of the film’s heart and emotional – driving the plot forward as she comes up with ideas to move the film forward. She begins having moved to London from Wales for love, living with her partner – a struggling artist – who can no longer fight in the war due to a leg wound. She becomes imbued with this greater sense of purpose as the architect of this movie – within this new wartime meritocracy that finds talent where it would usually be blind to.
Bill Nighy is once again playing that same old Bill Nighy character you’ve seen him do before, your cool hip uncle lighting up the screen whenever he waltzes into frame. This time Nighy plays a somewhat egotistical 60 year old actor who pines unrealistically for leading roles for men half his age. There is a contrast to Gemma Arterton’s character doing this job which had been usually been taken up by a man. They are both fulfilling roles that wouldn’t have presented themselves if there were men there to fill them.
Sam Caflin’s character on the other hand is the cynical screenwriter. Punching the keys of his typewriter at night as the bombs fall all around him. He starts off as this cynical almost difficult character but then becomes more driven, the more he warms towards Gemma Arterton’s character.
Their Finest is a nostalgic picture, not only about War World 2 and that vision of a Britain suffering under the weight of the Germans as mainland Europe remains conquered and the Americans remaining reluctant to join the conflict. It’s also nostalgic for the power of film, which I think is what really made me like the film even more.
Part of what the film crew are fighting against is hopelessness – why bother? When the bombs are dropping on London every night, as Hitler takes most of Europe, as everything is falling down all around you, why bother with something as trivial as film making? It’s a commentary for the arts in desperate times – and yes it remains as resonant to our current times as well. The need for it, the importance of it. The film scenes the crew shoot during Their Finest is adoringly put together to look authentic of the time. Gloriously technicolour, with cheap naff looking airplane models to pose as the iron birds of prey of the Luftwaffe. The generally moving scenes you see on screen within the screen, scenes you’ve seen Gemma Arterton’s character hash out with Sam Claflin’s character. So you understand where they come from. It channels the brilliance and delight of film making.
My one criticism is a plot point that happens towards the end of the movie, in which the flourishing romance between two characters is suddenly realised and literally stamped out extremely and unbelievably quickly. It’s not as if any of them get killed during the Blitz, which would be more feasible, but rather an unstable part of the film set. The characters literally go from the happiest moment to their saddest moment in what feels like seconds of screen time, to the point it feels a little ridiculous. Perhaps I was too invested in the two characters love/hate romance by this point and just didn’t want to accept how quickly it is crushed. It felt like the actions of a cruel sick uncaring God, and I just couldn’t accept the tragedy. I guess it does give the film a darker more bittersweet edge in a way these cosy Brit flicks don’t usually inhabit. The whole point of the film, under the dark storm clouds of the Blitz is that happiness can be snatched away from you in a single moment.
It’s more of an emotional protest than anything…
Time can remove all ills. It’s been over 70 years since the end of World War 2. It is said that collectively we as a people have a historical and cultural memory that will only go back as far as our grandparents lives. After then, humanity is in danger of losing it’s memory, and if we forget our errors of history, how do we stop making these same errors in the future? More and more, it is war movies that act as our cultural memory of these huge global conflicts, our education of what these conflicts were like and the massive human loss we suffered. In a way, war movies almost have an elevated sense of responsibility to future generations.
As with many films, particularly period films, we are effectively watching Their Finest through two pairs of eyes. First of all from the perspective of their characters, in this case, championing this production that by all accounts will persuade the US to join the fight against Germany. Secondly, we see it through our own eyes, looking back through history where certain elements that are growing all too familiar to our present times. Where film becomes a time capsule unearthing the ways we were and the ways in which we are.
It’s hard not to like Their Finest – it is that winning brand of British dramatic comedy, a template we’ve seen work so many times before. Though it is light and comedic throughout, there is enough grimness to keep the film grounded and enough sadness to sway the emotions making it’s conclusion all the more bittersweet. It’s well acted, with grace and dignity by Gemma Arterton and humour and colour from Bill Nighy. Mostly however, it is a story about the magic of movies. The magic of film making, the unusual lengths of effort we go to depict a scene, the humanity we pour so earnestly into this team based ritual. Finally it’s about the importance of movies and the arts in generaly, particularly in the darkest times.