Gemma Arterton stars as a screenwriter during WWII, keeping calm and carrying on
Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest opens with a British audience watching a propaganda short at the cinema. The black-and-white reels reveal a bunch of women working on munitions in a factory, with one of the girls telling her supervisor how her “man’s gone missing, miss.”
In a time of keeping calm and carrying on, she’s told she’ll feel much better after a cup of tea. The audience erupts in snorts of derision, and screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) realises that the stiff-upper-lipped lads in the Ministry of Information really have no clue how to write working-class women.
Adapted from Lissa Evans Their Finest Hour and a Half, the film finds its heroine in Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), roped into the world of propaganda filmmaking after showing a knack for women’s dialogue, summarily dismissed by all her male colleagues as “the slop.”
“Obviously,” Richard E Grant’s supervisor tells her, “we can’t pay you as much as the chaps,” with the work just as creatively unrewarding as financially.
Living in Blitz London with her left-leaning artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston), Catrin sees her job a means less to an end and more to a continuation, desperately needing to keep a roof over their heads. Even if nightly air raids mean it might not be around for long, she determined to stay in London and support her man, even if his personality is as dour as his paintings.
Told to find a story with “authenticity and optimism,” Catrin happens on a tale of twin sisters piloting their father’s boat to Dunkirk, but when a visit reveals fact to be rather less authentic than fiction, she opts to embellish some details as the film goes into production.
It’s only during the making of the film within the film that Their Finest springs to life, shaking off its low-budget Foyle’s War trimmings and expertly deploying its cast of character actors.
A cypher for proto-feminism based on Ealing Studios writer Diana Morgan, Catrin butts heads with her male colleagues’ dismissive attitudes, her 21st-century frustrations seething beneath her 20th-century demeanour.
Arterton adds nuance and charm to the role, a resolute steeliness to make the most of it giving way to an artistic awakening. “A lot of men are scared we won’t go back into our boxes when this is all over,” her only female ally tells her, after a particularly bruising moment, “It makes them belligerent.”
Her resolve is further tested with the constant demands of the Ministry, demanding an all-American hunk (Jake Lacy) be woven into the script to win over the US to the war effort, and by the fragile ego of fading matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), unhappy with his bit part.
As Hilliard, Nighy steals every scene, often by simply showing up, archly sending up ageing thesps trying to flesh out his supporting role in the film, deriding his agent for finding him a gig as “a shipwreck of a man... 60s... looks older.” It’s a role tailor-made for Nighy, rich in clueless vanity and gentle humour that cannot but elicit a giggle.
Far less effective is the inevitable love triangle that emerges between Arterton, Claflin and Huston, nor the 11th-hour twist that underscores the sweetness of the film. Indeed, throughout its generous running time, Their Finest is at pains to remind us of the dangers of WWII, creating several subplots and sidelining characters we’ve hardly gotten to know.
And there’s the rub, there’s just too much going on here for Their Finest to do... well, their finest, with the bones of a perfect mini-series picked clean in an adequate feature.
Verdict: Handsome and humorous, with moments of enjoyably hammy creativity, Their Finest comes apart at its rather stretched seams.
Their Finest (12A/117mins) is released nationwide on April 21st.