“Their Finest” puts a not-too-vigorous spin on the clichés of wartime survival in blitz-bombed England. Set in 1940, it’s about how the film division of the British Ministry of Information churned out propaganda shorts and features to rouse the homefront and goad the United States into entering the fray.
The meek but determined heroine of the piece is Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a copy editor from Wales who is living in London with a moody painter (Jack Huston) whose gloomy canvases are deemed insufficiently uplifting. When Catrin applies to the Ministry of Information for what she thinks is a secretarial position, she is instead recruited to provide a woman’s perspective to the propaganda film effort. The head of the film division (a hilarious Richard E. Grant) wants scripts that have “authenticity informed by optimism,” and Catrin, by virtue of her gender, becomes the supplier of what is disparagingly referred to by the otherwise almost entirely male corps as “the slop” – women’s dialogue.
Holding her own in this male-centric environment, which includes her gently mocking co-writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), is a challenge Catrin meets with demure aplomb. Her ace in the hole is that she knows they need her “slop” to appeal to the primarily female homefront audience for these films.
She also knows to compromise her scruples, a necessity in the film business. When she researches a news story about twin sisters who piloted their drunken father’s battered boat from Southend to Dunkirk to rescue wounded British soldiers, she discovers that the accounts of the feat were largely invented. She doesn’t hesitate to replay the fabrication. She wants to give audience members the uplift they crave.
Director Lone Scherfig (“An Education”) and her screenwriter, Gaby Chiappe, adapting the 2009 novel by Lissa Evans, attempt, somewhat shakily, to strike a tone somewhere between sly comedy and swoony, old-fashioned romanticism. Even though the terrors of the blitz make periodic appearances, culminating in a tragic turn of events near the end, the overall effect of the film is one of comfy nostalgia. We are meant to see “Their Finest” as, in itself, a species of propaganda movie, with a softly feminist slant. It’s selling smiley uplift as an antidote to grievous loss.
Despite the cynicism of some of its protagonists, notably Tom, “Their Finest” thumps for rose-colored glasses over the hard glare of reality. British higher-ups, like Grant’s film division head, or, even more pointedly, Jeremy Irons’s secretary of War, come across as preening twits and yet, we are made to feel, they are on the right side of history. They, and not the intellectual sourpusses, are the ones it takes to win the war. (Irons only appears in a brief cameo, but his recitation of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V” is a nutty, heartfelt classic.)
The fact that “Their Finest” is intensely cognizant of its own clichés does not altogether redeem them. We know, for example, that Catrin and Tom will fall in love, although Scherfig is so reticent about the pair’s burgeoning romantic feelings that, for most of the movie, they might as well be playing tiddlywinks. Whenever things get a bit too sappy, she throws in a bombing or a betrayal just to let us know it’s not all fun and games in blitz central. The film’s best comic divertisement is Ambrose Hilliard, a past-his-prime actor of supernal self-regard, played with a waggish whimsicality by that supreme scene-stealer Bill Nighy. Whenever he is not on screen, he is missed intensely.
As enjoyable as it often is, I found myself resenting somewhat the film’s insistence on the redemptive powers of movies during wartime (or, by extension, anytime). When, near the end, we see Catrin smiling through tears in a theater filled with patrons cheering and laughing and crying while lapping up the propaganda film she co-wrote, the moment rings false because what we see on the screen is so inept, so clunkily melodramatic. Would it not have been better if Scherfig had included at least one patron who yawned or hissed or rolled her eyes?
Scherfig clearly wants us to believe that movies, whatever their gross defects, can serve a higher purpose, and there’s something self-serving in this message since it absolves her own movie from charges of cliché-mongering and clunkiness. In its own coy way, the film celebrates “the slop” it pretends to deride. Grade: B- (Rated R for some language and a scene of sexuality.)