Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
Being a film lover I have always enjoyed films that deal with the making of movies, such as Barton Fink; Singing in the Rain; Sunset Boulevard or Hail Caesar. Now we have director Lone Scherfig’s World War Two-era tale, adapted by Gaby Chiappe and Lissa Evans from the latter’s novel about a woman scriptwriter working on a propaganda film at the British Ministry of Information Film Division.
It is 1940, the height of the London Blitz when every night Nazi planes fly over the city dropping their bombs as part of Goering’s campaign to beat the British into submission. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is a Welsh writer married to struggling artist Ellis Cole (Jack Huston). Ellis has suffered another turndown of his art because it is too grim and somber, so Catrin has been their mainstay of support. When she applies for a secretarial position at the Ministry of Information and they discover she has been a journalist, they send her to their Film Division to work on their propaganda films, short home front vignettes sandwiched in between the feature films.
The ones that she is shown supposedly record a backyard conversation between two housewives that are dreadfully unreal due to their stilted dialogue. Soon, however she is assigned to travel to the coast to investigate a news article about twin sisters Lily and Rose Starling (Lily and Francesca Knight). They reportedly piloted their father’s small boat by which they had rescued several soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. Catrin discovers that the story was overly exaggerated and the sisters anything but interesting, yet nonetheless she pitches their story upon her return to the office. (Actually, the boat had to be towed back to port due to engine failure. The press mistakenly thought they had reached Dunkirk and were returning home.) Thus, is born the dramatic film The Nancy Starling featuring the one-time matinee star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) as the sister’s uncle. Working with male chauvinist co-writers Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter), Catrin faces an uphill battle in achieving an equal status on the project, due not only to her co-writers, but the Film Division’s labeling the women’s dialogue as “the slop.”
Catrin is like Mary in Luke’s story of the two sisters Martha and Mary, wherein the latter has left the place appointed to her by society (and her sister Martha), the kitchen, to listen to their guest Jesus. Martha is upset that she has left the female world to participate in the male world, that of learning. Nineteen centuries later, when Catrin’s husband is to take a job in another town, he expects his wife to quit her job and follow him, but she refuses. She wants to stay and work at the Film Division, even though it is male dominated. In the cramped scriptwriter’s office, the two male writers’ desks are so arranged that there is little room for her. She squeezes through a narrow passageway to a desk, clears away some of the clutter so she can set up her typewriter, and sets to work. We see her asserting herself later when she shoves one of the men’s desk back so she doesn’t have to squeeze through to reach her desk. This is a minor, private move, as we see her gaining in peer respect by her problem-solving skills with cast, crew, and bureaucrats.
She manages to ward off the egotistical Ambrose when he is about to walk-out in a huff because he cannot get his way. She rolls with the punches when Jeremy Iron’s Secretary of the War Department insists upon an addition to the script. He wants the story to include an American so that the film will do well in the States and arouse support for the Brits. (Isolationism was still strong across the Atlantic, with most Yanks favoring neutrality.) The British have a real-life hero in R.A.F. ace pilot Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy), a Swedish-American who had come to England to help in their battle against the Nazis. However, as an actor he is so wooden that he in danger of termite infestation. Some scenes can be saved by using voice over narration, but to save those scenes in which Lunbeck must speak, Catrin persuades the reluctant Ambrose to serve as his drama coach.
The film almost grinds to a halt when the higher-ups discover the truth about the sisters never making it to Dunkirk, but again Catrin saves the day. Hers is a commonsense solution: drop the “true story” claim and make a fictional film that shows the truth of what did happen aboard the hundreds of “little ships” that had helped the Royal Navy snatch the 338,000 Allied soldiers from their Nazi attackers. Make the kind of film the public needs to see during these dark hours.
As the filming progresses—and we get to see much of the movie within a movie—co-writer Tom Buckley gains greater respect for her talents, and she for him. They are clearly attracted to each other, but each holds back due to her married status. How this works out includes one development often used in such romantic plots, but then a surprise turn of plot lifts the film several notches higher than the run of the mill love story.
The title, Their Finest, taken from Churchill’s famous speech, applies well to the English in general, taking shelter in bunkers and the Underground each night during the Blitz and then emerging to clean up the rubble and collect the bodies of bomb victims. Of course, it also describes the efforts of the film team, and of the women foremost of whom is Catrin. She is not shown as a fire-eating/spewing feminist. It is one of the female office workers, Rachael Stirling’s
delightful Phyl Moore who actual verbalizes the theme when she explains why the men are so demeaning in their attitude toward women colleagues, “They’re afraid they won’t be able to put us back in the box when this is over, and it makes them belligerent.” Catrin’s femininity tendencies are in her bold acts, not her words.
The cast is excellent, with Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole and Sam Claflin Tom Buckley as the lovers. They have to be good because the better known (to American audiences) Bill Nighy is a great scene stealer as the aging Ambrose Hilliard, who still cannot accept that he is no longer the dashing leading man he once was. It is Phyl Moore who nails his character when she says, “He is an actor. Unless you have reviewed him, had intercourse with him, or done both simultaneously, he won’t remember you.” (Catrin, about to approach him, had asked if he would remember her, their introduction being so brief.) When this vain, egotistical actor decides to walk off the set and quit, it is Catrin who runs after him and skillfully cajoles him into helping the untalented fighter pilot say his lines is a delight.
Another funny scene is the one involving Jeremy Iron’s Secretary of War—I think I am right when I recall that he is the one who quotes from the Crispin’s Day Speech of Shakespeare’s Henry V.
This is a good film to see while waiting for Chris Nolan’s big budget Dunkirk, set for release on July 21. Judging by the trailer (http://www.dunkirkmovie.com/), it approaches history’s greatest military rescue effort from the standpoint of those on the beach, on the sea, and in the air. I loved director Lone Scherfig’s 2002 film Italian for Beginners, and feel the same way about her latest.
This review with a set of questions will be in the June 2017 issue of VP.