3 May 2017 | steerpike_2002
Charming wartime movie-within-movie
"Their Finest" is a clever, charming and funny movie from Danish director Lone Scherfig. Adding to her most well-known films to date, "An Education" and "The Riot Club", it is clear that Scherfig is a true Anglophile at heart, as this is as British as it comes. The film tells the story of Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a Welsh secretary in London at the height of the Blitz who finds herself on the writing staff of a propaganda film about the Dunkirk evacuation. Though married to a struggling artist (Jack Huston), feelings grow between Catrin and fellow writer Buckley (Sam Claflin) as they struggle to make "The Nancy Starling" a film worthy of raising the nation's spirits.
One of the strengths of "Their Finest" is its glorious sense of place and time. The locations and production design provide a real asset. The daily threat of the Blitz is rightly given sufficient screen time to feel like an ever-present menace, while wartime London and an idyllic Cornish coast are well realised.
"Their Finest" is at its best when the the lines between the movie we are watching and the movie being produced on screen are blurred. We see the characters and plot of "The Nancy Starling" evolve within Catrin's mind in a series of comic scenes which give Bill Nighy's character, ageing actor Ambrose Hilliard, some of his best moments. In one particularly inspired moment, the continuation of a real conversation between the romantic pair is imagined in the same visual style of the on-screen movie. The writers and director clearly had a lot of fun with these ideas and their execution is spot on. The creators' love of cinema is realised in a way only possible in a film about film-making and film-watching. The emotions of an audience watching "The Nancy Starling" in the film clearly capture the joy the writers and director take from cinema in general, and it's very infectious!
Arterton plays the lead role very capably, creating a likable protagonist. Among the most memorable performances, Bill Nighy plays himself very well (it's difficult to imagine who could have played him better), and Rachael Stirling shines but is sadly underused. Jake Lacy is also entertaining as the square-jawed American who turns out to be a terrible actor. The film possibly suffers from the distracting addition of star cameos (Jeremy Irons popping up here for a single scene), a fault I find particularly noticeable in British films of this style.
The key fault for me was that the film seemed unsure which of its two main plot-lines, the making of "The Nancy Starling" and the romance between Catrin and Buckley, should take centre-stage. Developing both meant that the beginning and the end of the film suffered. Initially the film needed to introduce lots of only partially related themes and concepts, which made the opening scenes feel artificially and dissatisfyingly forced together. The need to conclude both threads produced more than a few false endings which certainly made the film feel its length. The competition between story-lines also meant that some of the supporting characters, particularly Jack Huston's suffering artist, did not receive the attention they needed to give enough weight to their plot contributions. Even Buckley, one of the key players, didn't seem quite fleshed out enough, though this is not helped by the poor chemistry between Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton.
At its best though, "Their Finest" is a wonderful send-up of propaganda movie-making of the 1940s and a worthy war film in its own right.