FILM REVIEW – THEIR FINEST. With Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jake Lacy, Richard E. Grant. Written by Gaby Chiappe. Directed by Lone Scherfig. Rated R for some language and a scene of sexuality. 117 minutes.
As sure-footed and satisfying an entertainment as I’ve seen so far this year, THEIR FINEST is a backstage screwball romance set during the London Blitz that balances ensemble comedy and wartime tragedy with sturdy, old-fashioned aplomb. It’s the kind of movie you can point to when people say they don’t make ‘em like they used to.
Based on Lissa Evans’ novel, “Their Finest Hour and a Half” (a much better title), the film stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, a copywriter conscripted by the War Department to write convincing female dialogue for their propaganda films. The fact that these guys refer to actresses’ lines as “the slop” might explain why they’re having such a rough go at it, but that’s just one example of the casual sexism Mrs. Cole encounters every day at the office. “You’ll be uncredited,” huffs an ever-officious Richard E. Grant, “and of course we’ll have to pay you less than the chaps.”
Mrs. Cole almost immediately butts heads with Mr. Buckley (Sam Claflin), a snooty scenarist whose condescension is even tougher to take because he happens to be right most of the time. The two are tasked with penning a big screen adaptation of an “optimistic and inspiring” news item about a couple of young country gals who stole their father’s fishing boat to go rescue some soldiers at Dunkirk. It turns out to all be a crock of baloney, but then nobody in the picture business has ever let the facts get in the way of a good story. Before long “The Nancy Starling” is headed into production––in glorious Technicolor, no less––with a few “optimistic and inspiring” embellishments.
One of which is a fictional uncle for the girls–a boozy old coot finding redemption by aiding them in their mission. It’s a plum role for faded matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard, played here with sublime self-absorption by the great Bill Nighy. Hilliard’s monolithic egotism can only occasionally cloud the realization that his stalled-out career is on the upswing lately just because all the younger actors are off fighting in the war. Nighy’s droll pokerface betrays an at times ineffable sadness–he’s an arsehole with hidden depths.
The other big addition to the cast is an actual American flying ace played by Jake Lacy, written in at the request of the War Department as an attempt to politely nudge the Yanks along into joining the battle. Problem is that nobody ever screen-tested the lantern-jawed hunk, and Lacy’s hysterically mangled line readings raise the bar for depictions of bad acting in the movies. I could honestly watch an entire spin-off sequel just of Nighy’s flustered Hilliard trying to tutor the handsome lummox on this fictional set.
Because they enjoy sniping at each other so much, we as trained moviegoers know it’s only a matter of time before Mrs. Cole and Mr. Buckley will begrudgingly fall into one another’s arms. Indeed, some tiresome business with her inattentive husband (Jack Huston) provides the movie’s most predictable dramatic detours. “Their Finest” works much better as a workplace romantic comedy, albeit one where WWII casts a long shadow, disaster always just an air-raid siren away. It’s a very funny movie but it also understands how the world can be a terribly sad and unfair place, especially during this particular moment in history.
I’ve never been much for movies about “the magic of the movies,” whether we’re talking “The Artist” or “La La Land” I have little patience for Hollywood’s love affair with itself. And yet in this film the eventual unveiling of “The Nancy Starling”––complete with note-perfect Technicolor mimicry and magnificently dated special effects––captures a rather wondrous communal feeling. The audience, exhausted by the ravages of this damned war, joins together to laugh and cry at an admittedly cheesy melodrama in a great big group catharsis. It’s a marvelous argument for what movies can do. Optimistic and inspiring, even.•••
Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.