Sunday 12 May 2019

Movie Review: Their Finest (2016)

A wartime drama and romance with sprinklings of comedy, Their Finest is an attractive period piece although the small story struggles for resonance.

It's 1940 in England, World War Two is raging and London is subjected to almost daily German bombing raids. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) finds work as a propaganda short film script writer in the Ministry of Information. She meets fellow scribe Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and veteran actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), who is not yet accepting his days as a leading man are over. Meanwhile, Catrin's husband Ellis (Jack Huston) is a struggling artist with a physical disability, dealing with the humiliation of not being able to support his wife.

After the Dunkirk evacuation, government officials seek a morale-boosting story as a basis for a feature film. Catrin interviews two sisters who reportedly heroically sailed to the Dunkirk beaches and helped rescue soldiers, but finds the truth to be more mundane. Nevertheless to save her job Catrin embellishes the tale of nationalistic bravery, and with Buckley's help joins the team developing the film.

The fictional story of a colourful band of characters conceiving and filming a wartime propaganda movie is a pleasant enough experience. Director Lone Scherfig, adapting the book by Lissa Evans, effortlessly adds a pinch of dry humour and a dash of romance, muted as it is by the tumultuous clouds of war. The period details bring to grey life an England under siege, London's residents dusting themselves off, tending to the wounded and then carrying on with their lives until the next set of bombs rain from the sky.

With all able-bodied men off to war, Catrin represents women striding forth to join the workforce in large numbers. Their Finest includes mostly sideways but still telling references to the societal role of women past, present and future, as Catrin is increasingly empowered by the newly discovered and paycheque-triggered sense of value and independence. Gemma Arterton delivers a suitably stoic performance as a representative for both her nation's resilience and her gender's emergence.

But this is ultimately an individually-scaled story stretched perilously close to its load limit. The film runs up to two hours, and to get there Scherfig slows the pace down and includes plenty of ultimately repetitive scenes. The side story of the actor Ambrose Hilliard, his agent and the agent's dog and sister occupies a disproportionate amount of time and expands into a clumsy distraction, as does the involvement of a government minder nosing into the creative process.

The unconventional romance steadies the narrative. As Catrin unpacks her domestic situation with Ellis, her attraction to Buckley is slow to unfurl, and is constructed on a foundation of workplace banter and mutual respect. And in a world turned upside down by war, Their Finest deserves credit for charting some unexpected twists for the lovers to navigate in a unique time and place, the rules first suspended then rewritten.

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