London, 1940. Bombs fall nightly in devastating Blitzkrieg air raids. A nation’s morale is at stake.
Lone Scherfig’s latest film, Their Finest, is not her finest. No, that remains the Danish-born director’s 2009 Oscar-nominated An Education. I suspect Their Best Available was, however, seen as a title that would have been rather harder to sell. Not that this a film short on selling points. Their Finest’s cast list alone boasts Gemma Arterton as its plucky heroine, alongside a well-cast ensemble comprised of Sam Claflin, Richard E. Grant, Rachel Stirling and Helen McCroy; not to mention, of course, its showpiece Bill Nighy, nailing the role of Bill Nighy. The problem is that Their Finest tries so hard not to descend to quaint sensibilities, as common in such WWII period fare (Dad’s Army most recently), that it does so at the expense of much attainable charm, exposing in the process an ultimately uninspired plot. Whilst Gaby Chiappe’s inaugural feature screenplay certainly hints at more biting possibilities, these moments are too few and far between to sustain any memorable momentum.
Based on Lissa Evans book, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’ (Scherfig’s film adds a further 27mins), the plot gets going with the employment of copywriter Catrin Cole (Arterton) by the British Government’s Ministry of Information to lend to their Home Front propaganda films a much needed woman’s touch. Primarily, her task is to script said films’ female roles, a job charmingly termed in 1940: ‘writing the slop’. Catrin’s natural flair for the role quickly sees her recruited, by Claflin’s bruskly unappealing (or so it seems…bet you can’t see where that’s going!) Buckley, to work on the bigger project of a morale-boosting Dunkirk feature – albeit one perhaps more twee than the Dunkirk due from Christopher Nolan later this year. Nolan’s project, for instance, is unlikely to have, yet, ever been referred to as ‘authenticity, optimism and a dog’.
Arterton is as naturally winning as ever here in a fairly undemanding role, emulating perhaps her acclaimed West End performance in Made in Dagenham. Forced to work initially under conditions that are patently sexist – ‘Obviously we can’t pay you as much as the chaps’ – it’s that so predictable of plots that sees her peel back Buckley’s harsh exterior, uncovering a damaged soul as she does so, when on location and shooting in Dorset. Theirs being a dull colour-by-numbers trajectory through the film, some relief is thankfully presented by the subplot of Nighy’s over-matured and past-prime actor Ambrose Hilliard. Whilst hardly more original, this strand does at least offer the bulk of the film’s chuckle worthy humour. Nighy’s been honing this sort of performance for years and makes for the film’s principle raison d’être. It’s also in this strand that Their Finest comes closest to successful satire, wittily mocking actours and their treasured talents: ‘I am an actor, I know only my art’. These laughs are, however, at odds with patchier attempts at a broader branch of comedy, almost akin to slapstick, which fall flat beside the subtler jibs. Gags like a jump cut between the in-film line ‘It’s Hitler’ to Stirling’s trouser suit nail-hard secretary do no-one any favours.
Strangely for a film so intent on pushing forth female empowerment, Stirling presents the only other female character in the film to come even close to being fleshed out. Likewise, the message is further confused by an awkward reliance on Arterton’s male love interests towards establishing her sense of self. The will-they-won’t-they relationship of Cole and Buckley is complicated by the presence of Jack Huston’s floundering artist of a husband back at home, but not so much that the dilemma ever feels much more than a temporary inconvenience.
It’s a shame really. Scherfig’s talent is undeniable but feels too much to be on safe ground here. Those familiar with the director’s oeuvre (including 2011’s One Day) should be prepared for a concluding third intent on bringing out the hankies, whilst the 12A rating from the BBFC signposts a number of scenes that see Scherfig tackle the more grim implication of filmmaking in the Blitz. If only Their Finest felt nuanced enough to attack such moments and allow them to resonate.
Their Finest is a crowdpleaser, and one that ought to go down well with the right audience. It is, however, a wartime rom-com where the ‘wartime’ lacks meaningful impact, the ‘rom’ is too predictable, and the ‘com’ only infrequently hits the mark.