STX Films/Europa 113 minutes R
Most World War II films are about battles on the field. This one is about what went on behind the scenes. It’s a movie about making a movie to boost morale in England. Only this film is told from a woman’s perspective. Gemma Arterton, the star of the film, says this is a great time to be a woman in the film industry. And this film shines a light on that, too. It is based on a book by Lissa Evans. Director Lone Scherfig and Gaby Chiappe bring their female touch to the film.
Men are fighting at the front and women are left home to work in factories and offices. Catrin Cole played by Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, Prince of Persia) is a secretary assigned, she thinks wrongly, to help the British Ministry write a propaganda film.
Catrin is good with words, but this is so foreign to her. The men at the British Ministry want her to provide “slop” or a woman’s touch to soften the tone of the film. Today we would find hiring a woman to do that offensive, but in 1940, it became an advantage.
Catrin begins working and growing as a writer alongside dynamic movie producer/writer, Buckley, played by Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games, Pirates of the Caribbean). Gemma is radiant, if tentative, as she tries to prove herself to Buckley. Once he sees that Catrin has talent and that they play off each other well, she continues to earn his attention and respect. Even the crusty female line-producer, played by Helen McCrory, softens a bit when she sees that Catrin can contribute, working well with the team.
But Bill Nighy steals the show. He plays Ambrose Hilliard, an aging actor with an outsized ego whose agent is not bringing him great scripts. When this one comes along, he, too, is reluctant, but his agent talks him into it. You won’t like him at first, although he provides snappy comedy. He delivers some wonderful zingers and double takes. Nighy is fun to watch and looks like he’s really enjoying playing this character. Working on this project softens Ambrose and the attitudes of the rest of the crew toward each other as they work and laugh together. Jake Lacy (TV’s The Office) adds humor with his bigger-than-life portrayal of an American actor who is not the brightest bulb but is always smiling.
Everyone has to look after each other as bombs hit the streets of London more frequently. The before and after shots of destruction of Catrin’s neighborhood from the blitzkrieg are devastating. The scenes of her taking shelter in the Tube hearing planes dropping bombs overhead are realistic and disturbing in light of recent bombings around the world.
Catrin is married to temperamental artist Ellis Cole, played by Jack Huston (Ben-Hur, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) who was injured in WWI, so he stays home. There is no money to buy art and he reluctantly takes the money his wife makes from scriptwriting to support them. He has issues.
In the meantime, Catrin is becoming more and more passionate about filmmaking and what they are trying to accomplish. The script for the propaganda film is based on an incident where young twin girls took their father’s boat to rescue soldiers stranded at Dunkirk. What really happened is much different than how they spin the script and that adds comedy to the situation.
The tragedy of war including destruction, separation, deprivation and lack of money, wear on their relationships, especially for Catrin and her husband. The film drags a bit in the middle as she’s trying to solve the work/life balance. Will Catrin find happiness in her personal life as well as in her new profession? Will they be able to finish the film and be successful in pleasing the British Ministry as well as the war weary audience? The end will surprise you and is pretty melodramatic.
Arterton is beautiful and convincing as the woman who becomes stronger as the film goes on. Director Lone Scherfig has done a good job touching all the bases down to minute detail. She has created a film with a different perspective on women and war in another era. Their Finest is soapy and a bit sappy but it’s more than good enough.