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Their Finest
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by Jay Seaver

"A tribute to British wartime cinema that is genuinely delightful."
5 stars

What a surprisingly delightful film. "Their Finest" is, to start with, about what you'd expect, a likable tale of Brits Doing Their Bit during WWII, cheekily aiming for the same sort of impossible mix of optimism and realism that the characters within are aiming for in order to keep spirits up. That would be quite enough, because it really is quite good on that count, but it’s got a level of self-awareness and ability to quietly be the sort of thing it venerates that makes it resonate all the more.

As the story starts, it’s 1940 and Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is about to have a job interview. She thinks it’s for another secretarial position, but it turns out that someone at the Ministry of Information saw a comic strip for which she had stepped in to do the dialog because so many of the male copywriters were called up to serve; they want her to help punch of the women’s lines in widely-mocked propaganda shorts. This leads to work on a feature, which she’ll help Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter) write, though the true story of heroism it’s based upon may be exaggerated. Making a movie isn’t easy in the best of times, of course, and with a war on, there are contradictory demands coming in even without considering reluctant co-star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) or Cartin’s husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a disabled artist and air-raid warden who feels threatened by her earning the rent money.

The films of the late 1930s and early 1940s had some rough edges, certainly, and can be an acquired taste three generations later, but there’s an earnestness to them that merits notice, and Their Finest is a loving tribute to British films of the period in all their methodical, mannered glory. Director Lone Scherfig and her cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov shoot the film in modern, realistic style, with widescreen compositions and charcoal grays that reflect Ellis’s paintings, but when we finally get to see the film-within-a-film (and even as Catrin imagines what it will be like), it recreates the films of the period perfectly: Square, with somewhat primitive effects work, fairly stationary camerawork, and jolting patches of color. The thing is, it’s done without the twee superiority of a Wes Anderson or any grinning irony, earning the love audiences show, even though (and in some ways because) they’ve been allowed behind the curtain.

There’s layers to it; consider a terrific scene where Scherfig gives the audience just enough time to subconsciously register that Catrin has exited the Underground near a fashion boutique with mannequins in the window just before a bomb drops and then spends the next minute or two letting the audience waver unsteadily over the thin line between reassuring artifice and horrifying realism. The screenplay works that way, too; even as the characters react to last-minute emergencies and studio notes to stitch something together, so too does screenwriter Gaby Chiappe (working from Lissa Evans’s slightly more cheekily-named novel Their Finest Hour and a Half) sometimes seem to be making it up as she goes along, trying to pull contradictory impulses and randomness into the structure audiences go to movies to be reassured exists.

But look past that, and there’s something else going on. It's not hard to see women struggling to tell their own stories or have their own agency, as each step forward for Catrin is accompanied by a revelation of something she's had to give up, and her utterly necessarily contribution is derided by male writers as "slob". It’s most obviously clear in the cowed expressions on the twin women whose aborted adventure inspires the story, and the sexist treatment Catrin endures at home and the office, but while it’s easy to see those coming, there’s something sneaky about how the filmmakers use Rachael Stirling as one of the fim’s de facto producers: She’s initially defined by Buckley’s words, a pushy lesbian spying on them for the Ministry, but without Stirling changing her portrayal much, she comes to seem much less starchy when seen from Catrin’s perspective; she’s soon a friend and an ally for someone who can often feel like she’s fighting alone against every man in the world. If she manages to do so, that may also be a sort of optimistic realism for the time, although some what justified (with a little bite) given that women both writing and directing the film.

It’s given a big boost by Gemma Arterton, as well. She plays the whole film with a small, reedy voice that one might expect to deepen or amplify as the film goes on, but that’s not much the case; her growing confidence shows in her no longer hesitating so often. She always displays a curiosity and an empathy that makes the moments when Catrin describes what got her to this spot feel like filling in the blanks because we already know her, as well as giving a depth to her love stories without her necessarily being subsumed by them. As Gemma becomes a better, more trusted writer; Arterton shows her discovering a natural talent without ever seeming like a prodigy or an exception. She plays naturally enough off Sam Claflin and Jack Huston that the way the filmmakers avoid a love triangle seems even more impressive. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this is one of those British films packed to the gills with scene-stealers. Bill Nighy is the obvious one, doing Bill Nighy things - nobody does the faded star better - and Rachael Stirling has already been mentioned as crucial. Nighy gets some of his best scenes against Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory as sibling talent agents, and there are great little turns by Jake Lacy, Richard E. Grant, Henry Goodman, and an unbilled Jeremy Irons.

They all get their moments, and it means that there are delightful moments aplenty. That would be good enough, but it’s the way that the filmmakers are confident enough to call back without underlining things and find the sweet spot between celebrating a sort of movie, being it, and being the thing that comes next that makes it a delight. It's a shame that this seems to be playing relatively few theaters, because it's clever and charming without pretense.

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originally posted: 04/19/17 10:34:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/19/17 Bob Dog A bit overstuffed, but very a enjoyable dramedy-romance. 4 stars
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  DVD: 11-Jul-2017


  DVD: 11-Jul-2017

Directed by
  Lone Scherfig

Written by
  Gaby Chiappe

  Gemma Arterton
  Sam Claflin
  Bill Nighy
  Jack Huston
  Paul Ritter
  Rachael Stirling

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