Their Finest (Lone Scherfig, 2017) 4 out of 4 stars.
The worst thing about Their Finest is its generic title, which offers no indication of the magical whimsy within. Otherwise, it is a charming, bittersweet cinematic confection that tells the tale of a propaganda unit in the British Ministry of Information that is tasked, in the middle of the London Blitz of the early 1940s, with developing an inspirational movie about the English retreat from Dunkirk (subject of an upcoming epic from Christopher Nolan). It’s a tough feat to pull off – both Their Finest and the movie within it – to combine humor and genuine pathos in a complementary way that does justice to both halves.* Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) does just that, however, creating a moving and entertaining tribute to the power of art to illuminate the real drama of our lives.
That is not to say that said drama is not stylized. Scherfig is careful to present every scene of filmmaking inside the main story with a certain ironic detachment, reminding us of the artifice of the process, while simultaneously emphasizing how the conventions of dramatic structure are what lend meaning to our otherwise inchoate hopes and passions. The setting is perfect, as London under Nazi bombs is, indeed, a desperate place; death strikes at random, lending each moment the intensity of fleeting peace. The cast is superb, headlined by the trio of Gemma Arterton (Gemma Bovery), Sam Claflin (Me Before You) and Bill Nighy (Pride), who are more than ably supported by the likes of Eddie Marsan (A Kind of Murder), Richard E. Grant (Dom Hemingway), Jake Lacy (Obvious Child), Rachael Stirling (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), Helen McCrory (Bill) and Jeremy Irons (High-Rise). Arterton and Claflin, especially, as co-screenwriters of the war film, masterfully convey the at-times conflicting pulls of duty and desire.
Artertron plays Catrin, the woman Claflin’s Buckley hires after seeing some of her work in a local paper. Men are in short supply, and though the ministry will not pay her at the same rate as her male colleagues, they are more than grateful for her talent. Nighy is the temperamental, aging star they hire to play the alcoholic “Uncle Frank” in their Dunkirk tale, though he initially sees the role as beneath him. As we watch they and the rest of the ensemble struggle to pull off the impossible (money and supplies are short, as well), working long hours amidst the German shelling, we also learn much about the cinematic process, itself, portrayed here with loving wit. It’s not all fun and games, however, as people die (bittersweet with a heavy dash of bitters), sometimes unexpectedly, reminding us at all times that this is war. Written by Gaby Chiappe and based on the book by Lissa Evans (with the much better title Their Finest Hour and a Half), Their Finest is that thing you didn’t think you needed – yet another World War II story – yet are so happy to have found.
* A sentiment shared by my Film Festival Today colleague, Senior Editor Rob Goald, who writes, “I thought it was worth 3 out of 4 stars and Lone Scherfig manages to achieve that rare balance between comedy and tragedy.”