It’s tough making a movie in London during WWII: top filmmakers are off fighting the war, the home office demands script changes to fit propaganda needs, and German bombs fall on the studio, killing and maiming the remaining cast & crew.
Their Finest, from director Lone Scherfig (An Education), is one of those sturdy, old-fashioned British dramas filled with fine performances and impeccable period detail that nevertheless fails to raise much of a pulse despite the real-world drama that surrounds it.
Gemma Arterton stars Catrin Cole, secretary at a production studio who gets an unlikely break: with all the male writers off fighting Nazis, her talent for screenwriting finally gets a chance to shine under the guidance of head writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin).
At the behest of the home office, they set out to make a inspirational piece of propaganda about a widely-reported story of two sisters who saved dozens of stranded soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.
Their heroism might be slightly less than what was initially reported, Catrin soon discovers, but that won’t get in the way of a good story.
What might get in the way is a slew of other issues that come up in the midst of a tumultuous production. Star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) is reluctant to accept a smaller role than he’s accustomed to, and propagandists insist on including an American hero that will come save the day, to urge Yanks to get involved in the war effort.
Other personal drama unfolds along the way, with Cole separated from husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a budding romance with co-worker Buckley, and the constant threat of death lurking around the corner as German bombs fall on the city.
Nighy, as you may expect, runs away with the movie. He not only gives the Their Finest a comic edge – and anything resembling a personality – but also features in the film’s most affecting scenes; his surprisingly tender moments with agent Sammy (Eddie Marsan) and sister Sophie (Helen McCrory) are the most heartfelt to be found here.
Other big names show up in bit parts: Richard E. Grant as a studio head, Jeremy Irons (excellent in a single scene) as the Secretary of War, Jake Lacy as the American “hero”.
But despite wonderful period detail and fine work from an excellent cast – Arterton is especially solid in the lead – I found it hard to muster much interest in these characters or their struggle to get this movie made. Considering the real-world horrors that surround them, what constitutes drama here feels lighthearted and bland.
Tellingly, I was more interested in The Nancy Starling, the fictional film-within-the-film about the two sister’s daring Dunkirk rescue.
Adapted by Gaby Chiappe from Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, the story is very loosely based on the life of writer Diana Morgan, whose work on famed British propaganda pictures like Went the Day Well? went uncredited but was recognized later on.
Oddly, there are at least three references to Air Raid Wardens, a Hollywood WWII comedy with Laurel & Hardy, as the next propaganda production from the British studio.