Their Finest is an interesting film to ponder over. There is a fine line between satisfying your audience and flattering them. Two films were released over the weekend set to the backdrop of World War Two. The Zookeeper’s Wife was a film that sacrificed gravitas and the realities of warfare for cutesiness, going soft on its audience for the sake of an “aww” from its audience. Something that could be seen as more than a little insulting to the true story of the historical figures involved at the front line of the Holocaust.
In contrast, British Drama, Their Finest strikes a perfect balance between feel good melodrama and genuine darkness.
Set during The Blitz, in 1940, the film follows a crew from wartime department of The Ministry of Information as they attempt to make a propaganda film about the Dunkirk evacuation. Turning Britain’s Darkest Hour into one of its finest stories of heroism and hope.
At its centre is Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) as she is recruited to help write the “slop,” a backhanded slang term for “women’s dialogue” for the screenplay along with chief writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter). As production takes place, a romance develops between the married Cole and Buckley.
It is a very British romance in a very British Drama, it is not sickly or cute but understated. A romance portrayed through nuanced gestures, lingering looks, awkward silences, verbal jousting and unspoken desires. Reminiscent of films from the time, most famously 1945’s Brief Encounter.
However, we are not spared the cold, brutal uncertainty of the blitz. In one scene Arterton’s Cole is scurrying back home when caught up in a bomb blast to a nearby department store. After bursting into relieved and somewhat horrified laughter after realising the bodies around her are mannequins, she then notices one of the mannequins is bleeding as the nauseating dread sweeps over her that it is a now deceased shop assistant. She violent throws up in an alleyway.
Such contrasts sum up the bittersweet nature of the film and the overlap or hope and horror that comes with total warfare. The deaths and there are deaths in the film are sudden and jarring. Such as loss generally is, who truly expects or prepares for it?
Director Lone Scherfig marshals sterling writing from Gaby Chiappe (Screenplay) and Lissa Evans (who penned the novel on which this film is adapted from) wonderfully. The film, within a film structure knitting everything together. The combination of a bleak period for Britain along with the country’s ability for stoic, determination and seemingly innocuously delivered, gallows humour.
Arterton delivers a performance of grace and quiet dignity. It maybe her best yet. A performance of understated excellence. Not showy but effective, efficient and emotive. Claflin provides the wisecracking charisma and Bill Nighy as overcooked actor, Ambrose Hilliard is superbly entertaining. Exuding all the scenery chewing presence you expect and Helen McCrory’s appearance, as it always does, brings a smile to the face.
My one complaint about all of this is the trailer. As an advert to draw in the punters it does Their Finest a crude disservice making it look like a made-for-tv easy going comedy-drama. It is so much more than that. I realise it isn’t fashionable for trailers to say “hey this film is great because its understated” but in an age where everything seems to be shouted, it’s a welcome relief. Subtlety works. Who knew eh?