Their Finest (2016)
Their Finest (2016) is one of several recent films that remediate women’s conspicuous absence from war history. It stands tall in the war film genre, as well as in period drama and feminist film. With beautiful cinematography, it nostalgically evokes the tensions and deprivations of London in 1940. At the same time, it provides an instructive insight into the making of a war propaganda movie in the early days of film history.
The two-part plotline is based on the experiences of young Welshwoman Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) who unexpectedly lands a movie scriptwriting job in the British Ministry of Information. The first half of Their Finest is about the planning of a movie for boosting morale and support for the war; the second is its actual filming. The thread of continuity is Catrin’s relationships; first with her war-damaged artist lover Ellis Cole (Jack Huston) and then her senior scriptwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Catrin has been hired to write “the slops”, a term used to describe women’s interests and views. In wartime, things change unexpectedly and the movie shifts from an emphasis on women, to a general rallying call to the nation, and then to an appeal to America to join the war. The casting of stars shifts from heroines to a past-his-prime actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) to an American fighter pilot who turns out to have appalling acting skills. By the end of Their Finest, we are watching the finished movie being screened in public having witnessed how it was made and the effect it has on the people involved.
The making of a war movie within a war film is an original and clever cinematic construction. The storyboarding, casting, and filming of the movie provide self-reflexive insights into movie-making itself. This is a multi-genre film, combining war and filmmaking history, period drama and romance, but it’s inaccurate to call it a comedy. Most of the humour comes from Bill Nighy’s portrayal of the pompous British artistic classes and his fading light as an actor. In an otherwise well-directed film, Nighy often overshadows its star, Gemma Arterton, who is the film’s beating heart and champion for women. Nighy has that rare ability to fill any space into which he walks, but this means that the film’s excellent cast shine only when he is off screen.
There are many reasons for liking this film, including its originality, acting and filming. It poignantly captures the fragility of life in the London Blitz with detailed attention to nostalgic sets, costumes, and mannerisms of an era. The colour palette’s de-saturated tonality reflects the sombre mood of the nation and the narrative covers a lot of ground. It is ironic, however, that a film dedicated to recognising the role of women in history should be so under the comedic influence of a veteran male actor. Despite its efforts to be otherwise, this will be remembered as a Bill Nighy film. For many, that’s not a bad thing.
Director: Lone Scherfig
Stars: Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Sam Claflin, Jack Huston