Their Finest is One of the Best Releases of 2017 So Far.
As the July 21 release of Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic Dunkirk draws nearer, let us remember that 2017 gave us another (albeit very different) Dunkirk film just a couple of months ago: Lone Scherfig’s alluring Their Finest, which follows a World War II-era female screenwriter in London, fighting to inject her own voice into an overwhelmingly male-centric profession. Not only Scherfig’s latest is one of my favorite releases of 2017 so far (side note: delighted to see that Variety agrees), but it is also a timeless, feminist, film-lover’s film I am confident a wide variety of audiences would find irresistible with its satisfying blend of genres, from comedy and romance to wartime melodrama. Managing to somehow weave its charms into the tragedies of the harrowing war that mostly happens in the background, Their Finest still makes sure you gently feel the emotional despair of wartime in its every moment and character.
Bad news first: Despite its polished crafts and solid reviews out of both its Toronto International Film Festival debut last year and recent theatrical release, Their Finest didn’t quite make the specialty release splash I had hoped for, and faded from the theaters with decent box office but not much word-of-mouth enthusiasm. I won’t speculate on why the response to it has been on the quieter side or why the intriguing title of its source material, “Their Finest Hour and a Half” (an award-winning book by Lissa Evans), has been reduced to something as vague and unappealing as Their Finest for the film adaptation, and I will focus on the good news instead: it is now available for digital purchase on Amazon and will soon be up for rental as well. So it’s a good time to catch up with this uplifting title from the director of the Oscar-nominated An Education before you get distracted by the rest of the summer and the upcoming Fall releases that will surely grow in prominence and noise as the awards season clicks into place.
Their Finest follows Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a soft-spoken and perceptive quick study of a commercial copywriter who gets hired by the UK Government’s film division as dialogue writer. Her task? Bring an authentic female perspective to their propaganda films (aired before the main features across UK’s movie theaters) that aim to boost the nation’s morale in times of extreme anguish. Living in a shabby, one-room apartment with her struggling-artist fiancé (like everyone else, their building and lives are under the constant threat of a bomb), Catrin accepts this unexpected challenge and source of income with open arms. She brings her knowledge about the domestic British woman, left behind to tend to the children, elderly and the home-front chores, onto the screen with her female-focused dialogue-writing (which her male co-workers call “slob” in a condescending fashion.)
Her responsibilities soon grow when she takes upon the task of co-writing the script for the Government’s next big World War II propaganda film, this time, to convince the movie-crazy Americans to join the war they had thus far been disinterested in. (In an appealingly lit, mahogany-filled and male-dominated meeting room, a line of dialogue informs us that 90 million Americans turn to movies as opposed to 30 million Brits, so the power of the platform cannot be ignored in shaping public opinion.) To crack the story of “authenticity, optimism and a dog,” Catrin gets paired with the playful, quick-witted writer Tom Buckley (Sam Ciaflin), who proves to be a compatible co-worker after an initially bumpy start. In their best moments together marked by an appealing sexual tension, the two summon a delightful physical and intellectual chemistry reminiscent of Joe Gillis and Betty Schaefer of Sunset Boulevard. Their optimistic Dunkirk film, a fictionalized account of a pair of British twin sisters embarking upon a journey to rescue wounded soldiers from the French shores, grows in scope when they cast Ambrose Hilliard, an out-of-work screen legend (Bill Nighy, nailing a dry sense of humor and been-there-done-that disdain), and Carl Lundbeck (Jack Lacy), their token American with questionable acting chops. (Cary Grant and Errol Flynn are hilariously name-checked as actors they’d rather have but can’t wait for.)
As Catrin continues to effortlessly grow into the shoes of her role and find her voice both on the page and in life, the ties Their Finest has to today’s film industry come into sharp focus. We never lose sight of the fact that Catrin’s male superiors secretly look down upon her skills (though she slowly carves out her spot working harder and being smarter than everyone else) or that she got the role at the first place as men at war have vacated the positions they’d normally fill. Their Finest makes this point even clearer in a beautifully conceived secondary character named Helen McCrory, who, after her husband’s death at war, rises to the occasion and assumes the duties of her late husband as a top talent agent managing Ambrose Hilliard. The no-nonsense Phyl Moore, a third key female role played by a handsomely-costumed Rachael Stirling (her sharp clothing consisting of trousers, structured shoulders and neckties favor the military look of the era) brings this temporary shift of power even more front and center when she suggests, “Men are concerned we won’t go back into our boxes once the war is over.”
The film also does beautifully with the lovely yet tragic romance at the heart of the story. It places Catrin at a crossroads where she needs to choose between the insecure needs of her fiancé (Catrin’s salary makes his life possible until he finds success on his own) and her job, in which the possibility of another romance awaits. Not that there is anything wrong with romance or launching into a relationship, but a lesser story would prioritize a different kind of happily-ever-after; one in which Catrin’s eventual coupledom with Tom Buckley would overwrite her career ambitions. But even when her fiancé gets out of the picture, the film never betrays Catrin. She approaches Tom’s presumptuous confidence with caution, confronts his arrogance and gives herself time to think things over. In the end, Their Finest defiantly morphs into the portrayal of a successful, ahead-of-her-time woman, who finds a home and a family amid the comfort and challenges of her profession. And once she proudly experiences the kind of power her writing can possess, her well-earned self-assurance shows in the spring in her step and even slightly edgier clothes by the end.
With an attractive film-within-film assembly, a top-notch cast and a sweet, old-fashioned feel for melancholy, Their Finest is both a refreshing new angle into a slice of history that’s been depicted in cinema countless times, and a loving tribute to the past, present and future of females who face an uphill battle in the male-dominated trenches of the film industry. In fact, any industry.