Filmmakers set out to capture the harrowing and miraculous World War II evacuation of Allied troops who were surrounded by the Nazis at the beaches of Dunkirk. This sounds like Christopher Nolan and his upcoming suspense war drama “Dunkirk,” right? Well, it’s actually the plot of the wartime dramedy, “Their Finest,” which could not be further from the tone of “Dunkirk.” Yet that’s to the film’s benefit. It knows what it is and lives with a lively, charming spirit that resonates with a sense of the times as much as whatever Nolan plans to do with his film will.
“Their Finest” follows Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) as she gets hired at the British Ministry of Information film division in London to write the “slop” — what men of the time describe as women’s dialogue. England is in the midst of The Blitz of World War II as London is being bombed almost nightly. The country needs some sort avenue through which they can find hope again. Thus, Cole is brought on with screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and aging star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) to a project about Dunkirk, specifically about twins who stole their father’s boat to sail across the English Channel for the effort. Buckley describes the evacuation as putting “the fire back in our bellies,” and they all hope the film will too.
While the film could’ve been an overly sentimental mess, losing itself in its various efforts, “Their Finest” ends up a crowd-pleaser of the highest order, and that’s thanks to the direction of Lone Scherfig (“An Education”). Scherfig, working from a script by longtime TV writer Gaby Chiappe, shows a firm grip on the film’s themes from the very start. She injects a verve of charm, wit and empowerment in every frame. With so many films that are either supremely dysfunctional or follow a tired, capitalistic formula, it’s thoroughly warming to be able to feel and know the heart of this film to such an intense degree.
In fact, viewers can find the film’s main theme in the very first shot and the very last. The first few depict film stock of women working in factories, crafting the bullets fueling the war. Such a sight holds great power; it was this period of time when women worked to break through the barriers forced on them. The film then cuts to a British audience laughing at the movie about these women — immediately setting up the world of misogyny that surrounds them. Scherfig’s naturalization of later moments — such as when a film executive bluntly states that Cole can be paid less because “Of course, you can’t make as much as the chaps” — is quite jarring (well, not that jarring) when watching from a 21st-century perspective, which renders those moments all the more affecting. It’s this direct confrontation by the filmmakers that drives these moments and opens up opportunities for actors to shine.
As Catrin Cole, Gemma Arterton is vibrant and powerful. The script presents her with opportunities to combat the men she works with, and she capitalizes on those opportunities. When men try to tell Cole what’s best for her, Arterton injects in her character a steadfast honesty and a vulnerable anger to shut them down. Arterton may not be offered the grandest of emotional reactions, but she finds a way to place so much pain within her eyes as the war and the world each take so much from her. The character of Cole is quite clearly meant to represent the triumphant working women of the time — the name “Their Finest” fits in this vein — who withstood so much hardship of their own, and Arterton shoulders that weight wondrously.
Scherfig and Chiappe do struggle with certain elements of storytelling, though. There’s an inevitability to the obvious romantic development, which isn’t necessarily bad, but is not earned in its execution. Audiences will get a sense of what they wanted to accomplish in that development, but that sense is never realized on screen, and only comes off as odd and a bit off-message.
“Their Finest” also runs a bit too long, struggling with its pacing. While Bill Nighy is utterly spectacular in moments of comedic genius, his subplot proves relatively inconsequential and could have been mostly scrapped for a more polished film.
Even then, though, Scherfig finds a way to smoothly navigate the various tones of the film. There are transitions from comedic, lighthearted scenes into horrors of the war that are disorienting, but Scherfig seems to do this on purpose. During The Blitz, the bombings were sudden, and the tragedies unexpected. Such disorientation comes off as consistent within the world, and the actors bring a shock and endurance to their characters to portray the effects.
After each element builds, and as we traverse this hilarious and harrowing story, Scherfig brings us to the climax in which Cole finally gets to see her movie. The construction of the scene is brilliant, shifting perspective from Cole, to the audience, to the characters on screen, and crafting a sense of community around everyone, even the meta-fictional film characters, as they represent us and who we want to be. This is what movies can do for a single person as well as a whole country.
It’s in this final stamp of optimism, and empowerment of women, where “Their Finest” affirms itself as a delightfully fine time at the movies.
“Their Finest” opens today at Landmark’s Embarcadero Cinema.