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Considering that there was blood being spilled, bombs being dropped and Nazis being overthrown on the continent, it’s no surprise that a matter as seemingly trivial as filmmaking has received little attention in the context of the Second World War. But the bloodshed and bombs have been done to death (pardon the pun), and although I am looking immensely forward to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ later this year, I’m happy to see ‘Their Finest’ shine the spotlight on a different, underappreciated perspective of the war.
Propaganda did, after all, play an important role in helping Britain to keep calm and carry on during the war. “Authenticity and optimism” is called for, although as Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) wryly notes, that does seem a bit of a contradiction in terms. In their quest to revive the flagging optimism of the British people after the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Ministry of Information hires Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) to work alongside Buckley to script a new propaganda film.
Looking for a personal angle, Catrin interviews a pair of sisters who were reported to have helped in the evacuation, although after an interview it transpires that they actually broke down off the coast of Southend and had to be tugged back to land. Not wanting to be sacked, Catrin lies about their involvement and by the time the truth comes to light, it’s too late to back down. Given the choice, they press on with the film, and the underwhelming truth is moulded into a more swashbuckling, if increasingly fictitious adaptation.
One of the best and funniest things about the movie is the lengths that the scriptwriters have to go to in order to make the propaganda film acceptable to everyone. The boat can’t break down because it raises questions about British engineering. An American has to be introduced so that the film can have appeal across the pond as well. But he can’t get the girl at the end because that could sap British morale. It’s like a 1940s equivalent of health and safety, except much more charming.
Indeed, if there’s one trait that ‘Their Finest’ embodies more than any other, it’s charm. It is relentlessly charming, in that way that only a film set in 1940s Britain, starring Bill Nighy, could be. Nighy plays a veteran actor who has a sexist attitude that is symptomatic of the time. Nighy is always delightful, but his character development felt poorly done to me. He has a conversation with Catrin at about the midway stage, before which he has been a self-entitled buffoon but after which he suddenly has an avuncular charm. This dramatic change feels incongruous with characters who are otherwise well-rounded.
The film’s gender politics are quite interesting, in that they are obvious throughout but not addressed overtly for the most part. “Obviously we can’t pay you as much as the chaps”, Catrin is told when she is hired, and no-one bats an eye. When Catrin objects to the girls being relegated to minor characters in the script, Buckley is dismissive. “Girls don’t want to be the hero, they want to have the hero”, he retorts. It’s nothing we shouldn’t expect, although Catrin does manage to wield some girl power in the end.
Nighy and Arterton have received all the plaudits from critics and moviegoers, so let me talk about Sam Claflin instead. Here we have a very promising young actor who has made an unfortunate habit of being a standout performer in otherwise disappointing films, including Pirates of the Carribean 4, the last Hunger Games film and Me Before You. Finally given the chance to run with a good script, he’s fantastic, and so is the character of Buckley. He shares in many of the sexist attitudes of the time at first but is far too intelligent to let a small issue like gender get in the way of Catrin’s obvious talent.
His and Catrin’s back-and-forth argumentative banter is a highlight, even if their inevitable romance is very predictable. It’s established early on that Catrin is married, and as she grows closer to Buckley it seems like that might create an interesting conflict. But the film spurns that opportunity and it plays out exactly as you’d expect. I also think the film’s twist, in which Buckley plays a key part, is misjudged. It prevents a predictable ending I suppose, but it strikes me as an unnecessary attempt to insert drama where it isn’t needed.
There are also some jarring tonal shifts which come out of the blue, including the aforementioned twist. Sudden moments of drama can be effective, but for me they didn’t really work here, and it felt a bit emotionally inert as a result. I do like ‘Their Finest’, and with such a winning cast and a sharp script I think there’s a great film in there somewhere – if only it had taken more risks in some places, and less in others. But it is charming, it is funny, and it’s certainly worth a watch.
Their Finest is showing at the Dukes until Sunday week 26.