Offering rest-bite from the blockbuster storm, the British-to-its-core Their Finest is a warm and charming war drama-comedy examining the scarce but significant input women had into the film industry during the Second World War. Based on Lissa Evans' novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, it is a film of 'authentic optimism' at a time when the country needed such, following a team of writers who were tasked with instilling a positivity in the citizens left behind through the propaganda films they created. Starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy, this unassuming little film left such a big impact.
The British Ministry of Information approaches a film-making team to create a morale-boosting film about the Dunkirk evacuation during the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz. Catrin Cole (Arterton) is brought in to write the female dialogue and teamed with fellow screenwriter Tom Buckley (Claflin) to collaborate on the project. 'The Nancy Starling' stars Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy), a fading actor of the big screen, and must champion the brave efforts of both the British on the front-line and their American counter-parts, required to appeal to both sides of the Atlantic. Directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig, the Lionsgate release continues their diverse film slate in their post-Hunger Games world, ultimately delivering a film unrestrained by franchise conventions or specific true-to-life facts. All told, Their Finest lives up to its name in more ways than one.
Surprisingly robust and neatly structured, Their Finest is a stellar and enriching experience that informs as well as entertains with gleeful, crowd-pleasing abundance. Clocking in at 117 minutes, the war-drama smartly infuses a satisfying helping of comedy into the mix, inspiring a lovely tonal balance that ensures the film remains fresh and sharp for its longer-than-anticipated runtime. Utilising the film-within-a-film structure terrifically, the editing process has aided in joined both strands of the narrative together, uniting them efficiently and complimentary. From Evans' novel comes a screenplay by Gaby Chiappe that is skilful in building characters and generally crafting a story deeply rooted in authenticity, true to the times and refusing to less the impact - or horror - of war. It's not always ground-breaking in its storytelling and the occasional moment feels a little too familiar - but it takes risks and executes them, on the whole, rather well indeed. It's carefully rendered nostalgia prevents sentimentality from seeping through that often, adding up to a crowd-pleasing effort you cannot help but look back on with fondness. Simply brimming with heart, soul and charm, the Lionsgate release crafts a truly touching piece of cinema that operates on a number of levels effectively to deliver a startling insight into the lives of those left behind - including their contribution to the war effort.
Beautiful set pieces are showcased alongside some handsome production design, with thought and care going into each and every set-up. Some stunning directorial flourishes are present, intriguing with a look at cinema of the past and the way the (propaganda) films were created with significantly less technology and resources on hand. Lone Scherfig balances a sharp contrast between the beautiful imagery at play - seen most notably during the Devon-set sequences - and the dull and drabness of the city during the air raid sirens and bombings; as well as this, she presents the film-within-a-film with real insight, delving into how films were created in the era. It's really lovely to see. Everything strikes you as well-thought out and considerate, self-assured yet intimate; Their Finest is a film of genuine emotion and authentic optimistic - a phrase appropriately peppered throughout. Scherfig makes magnificent work of the on-location scenes, set in gorgeous countryside or seaside destinations - making a rather charming and crafted piece shine even brighter, accentuated by Sebastian Blenkov's wonderful cinematography. All of this married together by Rachel Portman's glorious score, highlighting both the film's humour and emotion perfectly.
And, of course, we then have the performances. Arterton is a diamond as Catrin Cole, equally fierce and reserved, powerful through a quiet, understated performance that demonstrates her (often overlooked) skill as an actor. Conjuring a beautiful chemistry with Sam Claflin (again, another under-appreciated but superb actor in the industry today), whose Buckley is a well-meaning, if slightly tactless individual, they are a delightful match. It is thanks to the pair that some of the most stirring moments are as affecting as they are, packaged absolutely heartbreakingly in one of the film's final sequences - and the film's highlight - set in the movie theatre at the premiere of their film. While Arterton (and Claflin to a degree - the women are the centre, after all) most certainly lead the way, the rest of the cast is packed out with an ensemble of talented people; Bill Nighy is typically great, this time injecting his performance with some absolutely stellar comedic timing that easily makes him a stand-out of the film. As his character develops into a more humanised, understanding person by the film's end (including another poignant scene), it is once again a testament to Nighy (and the screenwriter) that across this relatively short film, we see more progression encapsulated in this one character alone than most franchises can even dream of across multiple films. We are treated to some solid supporting turns to from most of the cast, with Rachael Stirling, Helen McCrory and Eddie Marsan particularly impressive in their smaller roles.
Their Finest, as a title, is no misnomer - it really is a fine, fine example of British film-making. A few smaller, minor issues - some of the thematic work feels a little too on the nose and predictable, with the self-referential love triangle easily the weakest element of the piece, particularly when the intended end-point appears so transparent - can easily be forgiven. It tugs on your heart strings, lifts you up and inspires, while quietly informing and educating audiences without ever overwhelming. It takes the majority of its themes - women's involvement in the war effort - and subtly incorporates it into the narrative, without ever straining too forcefully to emphasise. It avoids feeling over sanguine or sugar-coated, continually remembering the dangerous backdrop we are in the midst of, appropriately capturing the uncertainty of the era. This snapshot into the British way of life at such a defining time in our history is one that should be revelled in by all - and one that we can most certainly continue to learn from. As the only person in the theatre on a rainy afternoon, it is a shame many others didn't get to experience the warmth of this film - while it allowed me to openly weep without fear, I am confident this film will find an audience who will embrace it with open arms.
Summary: Their Finest is just that - a well-thought out, lovely and stirring piece of British cinema that is as entertaining as it is informative, as funny as it is emotional. Bolstered by wonderful performances from Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy, Their Finest is filled to the brim with an unassuming heart and charm.