Their Finest (12A)
DIRECTED BY: Lone Scherfig
STARRING: Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Richard E Grant, Sam Claflin, Eddie Marsan
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
Review by Robbie Collin (The Daily Telegraph)
It’s fitting that Lone Scherfig’s new film – a peek backstage at the Ministry of Information during the Second World War – should have all the qualities of a well-turned piece of propaganda. It’s the kind of handsome, rousing, rigorous entertainment you can’t help but play along with.
Sparklingly adapted by Gaby Chiappe from a 2009 novel by Lissa Evans, Their Finest picks up mid-Blitz, with British morale at a barrel-scraping ebb. The government finds itself struggling to strike the right tone in its public information shorts, so the head of the Ministry’s film division (Richard E Grant) hires a young female copywriter called Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) to bring a much-needed feminine perspective to their scripts.
“Obviously we can’t pay you as much as the chaps,” Grant offhandedly announces during her interview – one of countless swipes at Catrin’s sex that pass without a flicker of dissent. Another comes on her first day in the office, when her tetchy but undeniably gifted new colleague Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) chirpily informs her that the women’s dialogue she’s been hired to write is known around the office as ‘the slop’.
Other films have trained us to expect spiky comebacks to this stuff, whether historically likely or not. But Their Finest smartly withholds that easy jab of satisfaction – and the film’s gender politics are all the more riveting because they’re left to squirm away unhindered in the subtext.
Besides, there’s a job to be done. Catrin is tasked with writing a film about the Dunkirk evacuation that will rally the public’s spirits, while also helping persuade the United States to join the fight beside their allies. It’s a difficult, thankless process that has less to do with creating great art than keeping the production wobbling along by any means necessary.
The struggle to get the movie made becomes a playful critique of the film industry at large, both then and now – not just its treatment of women, though there’s much pointed material on that topic, but also the endless rondo of compromises, fudges and patch-ups that seem required in order to get anything done.
Bill Nighy, you’ll be astonished to hear, plays a suavely dilapidated matinee star of yore, who still sees romantic lead material in the mirror, but is cast, to his horror, as a boozy old coot. Catrin’s shrewd but respectful handling of Nighy’s character, who’s unimprovably named Ambrose Hilliard, is one of the plot’s funniest and most rewarding seams.
Much of it is just Nighy doing Nighy – delivering a funny line, then putting topspin on it with a frown or a squint – but space is carved out for pathos too, and an after-hours scene in which he sings Wild Mountain Thyme to his cast-mates is touchingly and unexpectedly underplayed.
In fact the film knows just what to do with its entire ensemble – not least of all Arterton, whose bright-eyed forbearance here has a certain Greer Garson-esque twinkle that feels exactly right. She also shares a bristly chemistry with the equally impressive Claflin, who takes to his pencil moustache and peppery dialogue with an ease and alertness that even his most ardent admirers from the Hunger Games days might not have predicted.
Scherfig has form for this: the Danish director’s 2009 film An Education zeroed in on exactly what made the then-22-year-old Carey Mulligan a film star you couldn’t stop watching, but without smoothing over the indefinably British texture of her performance that was so crucial to the story at hand.
Here, as then, her sharp sense for period detail helps – not just in the plausible sets and costumes (I swear I could feel Claflin’s jumper itching me from the screen), but also the staging of the shots themselves, which evoke the photography of the time right down to her placement of figures within the frame. (Scherfig’s cinematographer, Sebastian Blenkov, also shot her 2014 film The Riot Club.)
As for the film-within-a-film, it’s not so much a recreation of wartime melodrama as a broad and rosy spoof of it – yet you may find yourself sniffling along nevertheless, because it’s touchingly clear just how much it means to the people who made it. Hard work, as they say, is its own reward – and in this case makes a thoroughly rewarding film.
SUNDAY 25 MARCH 2018
Doors: 2.30pm Film 3pm
All tickets £4
Rotten Tomatoes - 88%
The Guardian - ★★★★
The Telegraph - ★★★★
The Independent - ★★★
The Times - ★★★★