Friday, April 28, 2017

Bittersweet Wartime Romance

Written by  Chuck Duncan

Their Finest– Gazing nostalgically through celluloid at the U.K. at war

Back in 1987 director John Boorman gave us the charming wartime, slice-of-life Hope and Glory which was a semi-autobiographical take on his own childhood growing up in England during World War II. That film had a specific look that made one feel they were watching a film from the 1940s. The new World War II romance Their Finest has that same look and feel, and the results are just as charming.

The story centers around Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) – or Mrs. Cole as she’s referred to throughout most of the film – a Welsh woman living with her husband in London during the Blitz. But with his injury from the Spanish War, they find themselves on the brink of being homeless, so Catrin takes a job with the Ministry of Information, Film Division, to help write scripts for short films to get women more invested in wartime needs. She very quickly ascends the ladder when the company seeks to produce a full-length feature to inspire England and boost morale, preferably from a woman’s point of view.

Catrin is sent to interview twin sisters, who were in the news for a heroic feat that saved the lives of many servicemen, to get their story for the film, but it turns out their story was inflated by the press and they only happened to help some servicemen when their own boat broke down. It’s not necessarily the makings of a heroic tale, but Catrin relates some of their story and lets everyone else believe the press accounts are true ... until the lie is discovered. But it’s still seen as an uplifting story so the studio proceeds – with further embellishments. Meanwhile, Catrin has to deal with her philandering husband (and there is more to their relationship than we first know), a slightly sexist screenwriter who has feelings for Catrin but keeps his distance, and an actor with an ego the size of the Hindenburg. And along with all of this comes, love, loss and the creation of a hit film that touches the heart of England.

I didn’t really know much about Their Finest, which is based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, except for one brief clip I saw with Bill Nighy’s Ambrose Hillard describing his acting craft. It seemed like a comedy of sorts, but it wasn’t much to go on. The film does have quite a bit of low-key humor, mostly from the Hillard character, but the story is mainly about Catrin’s attempt to hold her own in a world dominated by men, proving to them all that she has what it takes to write a great film (even if she’s just given the “slop” dialog to write ... a.k.a. the women’s roles). There’s even a very timely bit of dialog when Catrin is told that since she’s a woman, she naturally has to be paid more than a pound less than the men.

Arterton is terrific as Catrin, taking the character through a whole range of emotions as we see her grow from a timid mouse surrounded by too many strong personalities to a woman who can hold her own with the best of them while earning the admiration of her male colleagues. Sam Claflin is also very good as Catrin’s “boss,” Tom Buckley, who also undergoes his own transformation from chauvinist to admirer, a man who we can see is clearly falling in love with Catrin, but can’t do anything about it because she’s married. A sharp rebuff from her later in the film sends Tom into a tailspin, but you really root for these two to get together by the end of the movie. And Bill Nighy is a hoot as the self-centered actor, bringing the humor to some of the more serious moments, but also changing in the way he sees Catrin (their first encounter does not go well, but luckily, he’s forgotten about it by the time they meet again).

Their Finest also has a great supporting cast, with Jack Huston as Catrin’s husband, Richard E. Grant as the head of the ministry, Jake Lacy as an American soldier pressed into action for the film to give American audiences someone to identify with (even though he can’t act his way out of a paper bag) and to spur U.S. interest in the war (which at this point was just seen as Great Britain’s problem), and smaller turns by Helen McCrory (Madame Kali from Penny Dreadful), Eddie Marsan, and Jeremy Irons. My favorite of the supporting cast was Rachel Stirling as Phyl Moore, the go-between for the ministry and the production company. Her flaming red hair, masculine attire (yes, we do learn subtly that she is a lesbian but it’s never made more than it needs to be), and no-nonsense attitude in how she deals with all of the diverse personalities around her helped her steal every scene she was in.

While the film has humor and romance, there is also the business of making a movie and director Lone Scherfig (An Education) and cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov beautifully use vivid color to represent everything taking place in the real world and a combination of muted pastels and black-and-white for the film-within-the-film. And as we see bits and pieces of the finished product, it really does look like a British war drama from the 1940s, and those short pieces of the story also manage to tug the heartstrings as well, particularly as we know the events that led to the film being finished.

Their Finest may not be the flashiest film in theaters at this moment – most of the bombings of London take place off screen – but it’s full of great characters and a lovely story that will make you laugh and cry, and a terrific cast and direction that draws you in and keeps you riveted to the screen. I wouldn’t mind seeing the sequel where Catrin works on her second film with Ambrose, Air Raid Wardens. Cheerio!

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