Movies about making movies rarely connect particularly well with the general cinema-going public. Often caught up in what seem like nonsensical trivialities to most audiences, they always have a job on their hands to convince people that the stakes are actually as high as the characters might think they are. Such problems shouldn’t prove an obstacle to Their Finest, a story of filmmaking that also encompasses the Blitz spirit, full of Britain’s indomitable wartime pluck. It may not be anywhere near as wonderful as, say, Hail Caesar, this year’s best look inside the filmmaking process, but thanks to a storming third act, Their Finest goes down as a very, very pleasant trip to the cinema.
Lone Scherfig’s latest look into the British psyche takes place just after the Dunkirk evacuation, with British morale dropping as early defeat in World War 2 looked more and more likely. To boost spirits and encourage America to join the Allied war effort, the propaganda division commissions an inspiring film with ‘authentic and optimistic’ as their brief. This exact scenario, as depicted in the film, is fictional, but, crucially, it feels believable. Given that the first two thirds of the film sometimes strain credibility with absurdly archetypal characters, this atmosphere of reality is vital in holding your attention.
Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy get the most fleshed out roles from the off. Arterton is Catrin Cole, our hero for the story and an unsung one in the world of the film, thanks to being both a woman and the screenwriter. She is certainly a proto-feminist character, but this is handled in an interestingly subtle and restrained way, unlike, for example, Sam Claflin as the classic ‘redeemable of-his-time misogynist’. A washed up old ham of an actor doesn’t seem like the most original role to cast Bill Nighy in, but there’s more anger and sadness beneath the surface here than he is often afforded.
Despite some depth to Cole and Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy), the highlights of the first two thirds of the movie are undoubtedly Jake Lacy – as an American fighter ace brought in as an actor to attract US audiences – and a wonderful cameo that I shan’t spoil here. Lacy’s character, Carl Lundbeck, is a dreadful actor, which infuriates the crew and amuses us, but Gaby Chiappe’s script smartly reminds us that he’s the most heroic cast member by far – as soon as the shoot ends, he’s back to the air force.
You feel that perhaps a little more could be made of this, but the final third is so great that it doesn’t matter in the end. For a long while, Their Finest looks like it’s cruising into a 2 star position, but some very bold narrative choices made at the tail end of the second act invigorate the film hugely. These plot points not only give the story a lot more oomph, but raise the game of the dialogue, performances, and direction. Emotionally resonant in their sincerity, the concluding sequences of Their Finest are really great, and the smartest line of the whole film comes in the movie-within-the-movie. What we see of their Dunkirk Miracle story is genuinely good, getting laughs despite not going for the easier comedic choice of having them produce a bad film.
The lead trio of performances are pretty compelling, with even Sam Claflin proving there’s definitely more to him than we’ve seen before. Nighy is, of course, perfectly suited to his role and, when Lacy isn’t on screen, is the best provider of laughs, though Ambrose is not a part without some pathos. Him leading the entire crew in song during a night at the pub is both touching and laugh out loud funny.
Arterton as Catrin is more of a mixed bag. Her non-verbal performance is fantastic, fiery and layered, but her dialogue scenes are slightly muddied by her contending with a very broad Welsh accent. Come the conclusion though, it feels less jarring, ensuring that the final scenes land with the power they need. Given that it ends so strongly, it’s unlikely that anyone will walk out of Their Finest dissatisfied, and this original and lively take on a well-known piece of history will almost certainly find a place in the heart of British audiences.