“THEIR FINEST” My rating: B-
117 minutes | MPAA rating: R
What is it with filmmakers making movies about making movies?
“Their Finest,” the latest from Danish director Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”), takes that admittedly amusing self-absorption and pumps it up with World War II-era nostalgia and nascent female empowerment.
In Blitz-ravaged London, copywriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) lands the gig of a lifetime. She’s hired by the Ministry of Information’s Film Division to write a feature film — one that is both “authentic and optimistic” — that will embody Britain’s can-do spirit in the face of Hitler’s juggernaut.
The film is intended as pan-Atlantic propaganda that will show war-wary American audiences that Britain is more than supercilious aristocrats, that it’s a nation of everyday men and women fighting heroically for survival.
Catrin finds her subject in the real-life experiences of two spinster sisters who stole their drunken uncle’s boat and became part of the mass evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in France.
Though she already has a significant other (Jack Huston, playing an unsuccessful painter of glum cityscapes), Catrin finds intellectual stimulation (and other sorts as well) in her new writing partner, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). He’s one of those seen-everything cynics who nevertheless knows exactly how to manipulate an audience (“Film is real life with the boring stuff cut out”).
Together they figure out how to cajole a fading matinee idol (Bill Nighy, playing the sort of jaded egomaniac he does so well) into taking the seemingly inconsequential role of the drunken uncle. Somewhat more perplexing is how they are to satisfy the Ministry by creating a character for a non-acting American (Jake Lacy) who has been flying missions for the R.A.F.
Gaby Chiappe’s screenplay is a clever balancing act. There is, of course, the story of the making of the movie, with all sorts of on-the-set shenanigans. There’s plenty of satire at the expense of government bureaucracies. There’s a feminist angle (“A lot of men are scared that we won’t go back into our homes when this is all over”). There is the growing Catrin/Sam relationship.
And periodically we see scenes from the film they’re shooting.
What’s more, the movie first mocks cheap Hollywood storytelling techniques, and then appropriates them.
Plus there’s a small army of familiar faces in supporting roles (Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory).
There is a point in the third act when “Their Finest” does something so distressing that many viewers will consider giving the entire film the old heave-ho.
But stick with it. Amazingly, the listing ship is righted and we’re sent on our way with a surprisingly potent bit of dramatic uplift. Stiff upper lip and all that.
| Robert W. Butler