It’s London. It’s 1940. It’s the middle of the Blitz and the city is slowly emptying of young, employable men. Their Finest opens on a nation that is bowed down by war, and the British ministry turns to propaganda films to boost morale on the home front. Realising their films could use “a woman’s touch,” the ministry hires Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) as a scriptwriter in charge of writing the “slop” – old screenwriter’s jargon for dialogue between two women – for a film about a set of sisters who make a heroic rescue at Dunkirk.
Although her artist husband looks down on her job, Catrin’s natural flair quickly gets her noticed by cynical, witty lead scriptwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin). They forge an initially uneasy alliance and set out to make an epic feature film starring the gloriously vain, former film star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy). Nighy really does pull out some of his best work here – his trademark sarcasm and deadpan humour work well with the increasingly neurotic actors (Hubert Burton and a hilarous Jack Lacy) with whom he is forced to share the fictional screen.
With director Lone Scherfig (An Education, One Day) well-versed in the ways of period film, it looks and feels stunningly authentic. Wartime London is a tragically beautiful sight to behold and the film serves as a well-overdue love letter to the women who kept England going during the Second World War as the country emptied of men being sent to the front. It’s a wonderful moment when Catrin and Buckley are forced to regard each other as equals and their flirtation deepens against a picturesque backdrop of the Devon.
It’s gratifying to see that Arterton, who rose to fame playing naughty schoolgirl Annabelle in St Trinians in 2007, is more than capable of shouldering a dramatic lead. She carries the film with grace, poise and a flawless Welsh accent, not to mention a healthy dose of feminism. She learns to stand up for herself in the smoky, Scotch-soaked world of egotistical male copywriters and asserts herself against condescension that is thrown at her from all sides.
Sam Claflin has also broken out of his mould and brings surprising depth to the tortured artist. Best known for playing an arrogant alfa-male in The Hunger Games, he brings a wry and witty quality to the often-tired stereotype of beleaguered writer. His performance is even and emotional, and his chemistry with Arterton keeps the film bubbling along nicely. Even against a backdrop of increasing threat and stress for the film studio, Clarfin’s character keeps up a relentlessly charming facade.
The making of Catrin’s fictional film also reveals some quaint, charming secrets about how films were made before CGI. The techniques and visual tricks used in the studio are played for laughs, but it’s a delightfully informative trip down memory lane for any cinephile. Along with the technical aspects, Scherfig also plays up the magic of the movies and those who believe that art can change the world, even at such a furiously grim time in history.
As bombs are dropping all around them, Catrin and the team work furiously to make a film that will warm the hearts of the depressed nation. The film is equal parts nostalgia and wartime grit – gloomy scenes set during the Blitz merge seamlessly with the fading grandeur of pre-war London and the innocent flirtation of two young colleagues. With the strong ensemble cast and well-written script sprinkles liberally with dry humour, it seems inevitable Their Finest will stand amongst the best of modern wartime films.
Their Finest opens in cinemas April 20. Watch the trailer here.