Originally posted May 2nd, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com
It’s hard to imagine moviegoers will ever suffer from World War II story fatigue anytime soon; just about anyone with even a slightly above average interest in film has Christopher Nolan’s upcoming epic Dunkirk on their summer agendas, though that might mostly be thanks to the man directing it. Just when it seems we’ve mined the era for all its worth, another surprising anecdote, fact or fiction, of courage on or off the battlefield raises its hand like an overachieving child patiently waiting to be called upon in class. Lone Scherfig’s new picture Their Finest, adapted from Lissa Evans’s novel “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” has its own tales to tell, and why not about the magic and frustrations of filmmaking?
Their Finest recounts the behind the scenes workings of the British Ministry of Information’s film division creating a fictionalized account of the Dunkirk evacuation in a simultaneous effort to lift the public’s spirits and help convince their American cousins to break from their isolationist stance. Specifically, we’re granted a glimpse at the screenwriting duo of Catrin Cole and Tom Buckley, played respectively by Gemma Arteton and Sam Claflin, as well as Bill Nighy’s Ambrose Hilliard, a smug former film star trying to recapture his former glory.
One thing we notice immediately is the film’s oddly vivacious spirit. Given the upfront transparency its plot communicates in terms of intent, this is nothing new for a film openly attempting to be a broadly appealing crowd-pleaser, but it feels strange, nonetheless, considering our story takes place in the midst of the London Blitz. Stark tonal shifts abound throughout the first act and former half of the narrative’s second, including one specific moment at its climax, but in a few cases, they work bizarrely well as a means of underlining the unfortunate normality of such occurrences, as well as the idea of how quickly things can change for the worse during wartime.
The overall product, however, is almost never a dour affair, thanks to well-written characters and fittingly snappy dialogue that thrives in spite of the film’s seemingly unyielding positivity. In particular, Scherfig’s film is about Cole’s influence on the picture’s creation as a woman, as well as the sudden empowerment of women during the war effort and continuing such trends to bust up traditionalist, patriarchal views of heroism in media, and Gaby Chiappe’s screenplay contains Aaron Sorkin’s flair for fast-talking quips and witticisms with an ideological edge, minus the cynicism and supercilious undertones to mesh with the film’s intentions.
Ironically, though, the film’s male leads are arguably more compelling than the female protagonist at the very center of its narrative and advertising. That’s certainly not meant to take away from Cole as a character or Arteton’s strong portrayal of her, as Arteton puts on an involving turn that especially commands the frame when with Claflin’s Buckley, which comprises a majority of her screen time. Claflin, however, turns in an equally impressive performance as a character who possesses just a touch more dimension, expressing simultaneous pessimism and cautious optimism influenced by dread towards potentially having to fight and repeating his father’s sins.
Nighy is what you expect from him, finding himself at the center of the picture’s light-hearted comedic relief and stealing the show completely whenever the material permits him to do so, though perhaps his character is the most basic and cliché-driven of the core three. The rest of the supporting cast features some solid performances from the likes of Helen McCrory, Rachael Stirling and Jake Lacy, in particular, the latter of whom being the film’s secondary source of laughs.
Perhaps the film isn’t as fully aware of the ironic dichotomy originated by telling a story about the creation of a film disrupting cinematic norms while using traditional narrative beats and structure as we’d like, but that doesn’t distract from the material’s rich themes and engaging storytelling. Amiable enough in its own right, Their Finest is a fine – I promised myself I’d avoid that word – production that any cynic will say falls in line with Slavoj Žižek’s ideas of ‘interpassivity,’ but is thoroughly and not too sweetly infectious thanks to the talent gathered in 1940s period garb.
Think of it as a small taste of Dunkirk before everyone flips their lid over Nolan’s film, regardless of what the consensus is.