by Emma Smith (Reporter),
As their world unravels around them, two British writers struggle to piece together a film about Dunkirk that is both emotionally authentic and effective propaganda. This is the axis around which Their Finest revolves, but the movie beautifully balances multiple layers. It is a war movie about the home front. It is a romance. It is a comedy about the movie-making process. It is about the difficulty of making art in a bureaucracy. It is a movie about living through the unthinkable. It is a an exploration of the limits of truth in art. It is a story about female empowerment. The seamless integration of all these elements is a testament to the talent of the cast and crew.
*minor spoilers ahead*
In the London of 1940, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, The Girl with All the Gifts) is hired at the Ministry of Information to write the women’s dialogue, aka “slop,” for propaganda pieces. She turns out to be quite good at it even if her hiring was a bit of an accident. “I thought it was a secretarial post!” she exclaims to another character. Much of her work is done with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin, Me Before You and Catching Fire), another writer full of cynical witticisms about movies and life. They are supervised by Phyl Moore (Rachael Stirling, The Bletchley Circle), a government liaison Buckley calls “the enemy” when he’s feeling nice.
The two take on the task of creating a propaganda feature about two sisters stealing their father’s boat to rescue soldiers from Dunkirk. The film faces one obstacle after another: “real life” must be more cinematic so the sisters become younger and prettier; the revelation that the boat’s engine broke down on the way to Dunkirk nearly drowns the project; they must coax a crotchety older actor (Bill Nighy, Love Actually) into taking a supporting role; the Secretary of War (Jeremy Irons, The Borgias) insists on adding an American pilot (Jake Lacy, Girls) who can’t act to the cast; and bombs are falling across London as they write and film. As they navigate these challenges, Catrin and Buckley grow close. This closeness is complicated by Catrin’s turbulent marriage to Ellis Cole (Jack Huston, Ben-Hur).
The actors in this film are a joy to watch. Gemma Arterton is, quite frankly, luminous as the main character. She is quiet but strong-willed and easy to root for. Sam Claflin has gone through a reverse version of the “geek girl is hot once she takes off her glasses” since his turn as Fiddick in the Hunger Games trilogy, but his attractiveness shines through. His “asshole with a heart of gold” may be a bit of a cliche, but it’s a cliche he does well. Bill Nighy and Jake Lacy have the funniest moments, the best of which are playing off each other. Finally, Rachael Stirling brings unexpected depth to what could have been a flat character in lesser hands.
The visual parts of the movie are also done well. Sebastian Blenkov’s cinematography is unobtrusively beautiful. There are a hundred shots in this film that would stand on their own as beautiful photographs, but they never draw attention away from the emotional heart of the scenes. Liz Griffiths and Alice Normington do a wonderful job using details and set pieces to create the Britain of World War Two.
Still, my favorite part of this movie is the writing. This a a film about the physical process of filmmaking. There are fun glimpses into different aspects of production, from creating thousands of soldiers with glass and paint to what it’s like to film a boat scene in a studio. But more than that, it is a film about the emotional process of filmmaking. Art relies on artifice to tell us truths about ourselves. Early in the film, one of the main characters describes film as “real life with the boring bits cut out.” Our protagonists must make multiple changes to “what really happened” in order to make their story work as a film, but its heart never changes. Maybe Rose and Lily, the real sisters, didn’t physically get to Dunkirk, but the courage they displayed in trying is echoed in their movie counterparts. Maybe the writers invented a man who lost his sons in the Great War, but his heartbreak was no less authentic to millions of parents across the U.K. The film is truthful because of those authentic reflections of experience, more so than because of the factual nature of its details.
The same is true of Their Finest. Maybe Catrin Cole never really existed, but her frustration at not being taken seriously will resonate with any woman who’s been talked down to because of her gender. The love and loss and courage displayed by the characters will resonate with many.
ComicsOnline gives Their Finest 4.5 out of 5 completely extraneous but cute dogs. Woof-Woof.
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