Sunday, 30 April 2017

Their Finest



As filmgoers await Christopher Nolan’s probable blockbuster, Dunkirk, coming in July, here is a quiet, humorous British drama that approaches the massive 1940 military evacuation from a very different angle, focusing on the role of women in Great Britain during World War II.

Their Finest also draws attention to the role of women in filmmaking. Despite all of the advances in gender equality (and far too much remains to be done), women have had a very difficult time breaking into all aspects of the filmmaking business, most noticeably in the roles of directing and screenwriting. Even today, less than 7% of all films are directed by women. That low percentage drops even further for films that are not only directed by a woman, but are also written by a woman and feature a female protagonist. Their Finest is one such film, and few, if any, such films have impressed me as much as this one.

As German planes drop bombs on London in the fall of 1940, the British Ministry of Information works on a propaganda film that it hopes will not only bolster the morale of the British people but also make the Americans more sympathetic to their plight (so they will get involved in the war). The subject of the film is to be the incredible retreat of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, which took place in late May/early June of that year. Specifically, the film is to be based on a supposedly true story of twin sisters living on the English coast who hear, on their radio, of the desperate need for boats and immediately take their uncle’s boat across the English Channel to help. 

With men in short supply, Catrin Cole (played by Gemma Arterton), a former secretary, suddenly finds herself given the opportunity of a lifetime: to work with two men (Tom Buckley and Raymond Parfitt, played by Sam Claflin and Paul Ritter) on writing the screenplay for the new film. Despite her initial fears, Catrin takes on the role with a quiet strength and determination, making a key decision early on to keep silent when she discovers the story of the twin sisters is far from accurate. Those initial fears include working with a big-name film star, Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), who treats her poorly on their first meeting, though the real challenge comes when the filmmakers are forced to work with an actual American air force pilot who has joined the British air force. The pilot (Carl Lundbeck, played by Jake Lacy) can’t act, but he’s handsome, and the Secretary of War (wonderful cameo by Jeremy Irons) demands a key role for him in the film in order to help American women warm to the idea of their husbands and sons joining the fight. 

Catrin displays a wide variety of skills in meeting the daily challenges faced by the film crew and quickly becomes the best of the three screenwriters, who rely on her time and again to make last-minute changes to the screenplay. But Ellis Cole (Jack Huston), the artist Catrin is living with, is not impressed that Catrin has become the primary earner in the household or that she is willing to go on location with the film crew instead of staying with him as he prepares for an upcoming exhibition that may be the breakthrough he’s been waiting for. Catrin, meanwhile, is struggling with her feelings for Buckley. 

The acting in Their Finest is terrific all around, with Arterton delivering an understated and very engaging performance in the lead role and Nighy perfectly cast (and often hilarious) as Hilliard. Both of their characters are well-developed and reveal hidden depths as the film progresses, pieces of a very impressive screenplay by Gaby Chiappe (based on the novel by Lissa Evans). Their Finest is her first film. Meanwhile, Lone Scherfig, who directed An Education (my favorite film of 2010), does a great job with the challenge of making a film about the making of a film. The trick, in making a film about the making of  film, is nudging the viewers away from a constant awareness that they are watching a film, something which automatically detracts from their enjoyment of the film. While there were a couple of scenes toward the end of the film which didn’t quite work for me precisely for this reason (i.e. because they reminded me that I was watching a film), I was generally impressed by the skill of the filmmaking.

I was also impressed by the great cinematography and the spot-on period feel, as well as by Rachel Portman’s score. Most impressive, however, was the subtle way Their Finest offers a look at how the role of women in the workforce changed during WWII, with Catrin’s strong intelligent character as a perfect demonstration of this development. At one point in the film, a female colleague says to Catrin: “They’re afraid they won’t be able to put us back in the box when this is over, and it makes them belligerent.” This is one of many funny lines in the film, though I would hesitate to call Their Finest a comedy, or even a comedy-drama, as it is has been labelled by some.

Their Finest is one of the year’s finest films and gets a solid ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up.

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