Film Review: ‘Their Finest’

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In the mid-1980s, graphic novelist Alison Bechdel came up with a simple question to assess the level of sexism in a film. It is known appropriately as the Bechdel test. Here’s the question: Does this film feature at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man?

In 'Their Finest’, directed by Lone Scherfig, a Welsh copywriter by the name of Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) ponders the same question, but it’s 1940 and women’s dialogue is referred to as ‘slop’. However, the Ministry of Information’s Film Division, headed by a pompously majestic Jeremy Irons, realises it’s necessary to engage a largely female wartime audience. As a result, Mrs Cole is enlisted to provide the ‘feminine perspective’.

Based on Lissa Evans' novel, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, this film is a charming and ultimately moving story about British filmmaking during the Blitz. It’s a time of sweeping social change when women are keeping the home fires burning and some of them have no intention of being ‘put back into their box’ when the War is over.

This is also a film about making a film – under the constraints set by the Ministry of Information’s Film Division, which require that the storyline be ‘authentic and positive’ in order to boost public morale at a time when Britain’s fate seems increasingly bleak. The British Expeditionary Force has just been evacuated from Dunkirk, France has fallen, Britain is besieged by German air raids and America is pursuing a policy of neutrality.

There’s a stellar British cast led by a beguiling Gemma Arterton and a deglamourised Sam Claflin as the lead writer, together with the aforesaid Jeremy Irons in a cameo which gives him a chance to declaim the rousing St Crispin’s Day speech from 'Henry V'. Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard steals the show in his role as a self-absorbed sixty-something former leading man who is now offered only minor roles. It’s a part which allows him to overact to his heart’s content and even break into song.

With the approval of the Ministry of Information, the writers, Tom Buckley and Mrs Cole, decide upon the true story of twin sisters who set out in their father’s boat in an attempt to cross the Channel and evacuate British soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk. But soon the writers find themselves required to include an American character for the US market and to alter their script in other ways to meet the demands of their masters. Until the very end, the movie is referred to as the ‘Dunkirk film’ but astute viewers will guess the eventual title from the start.

Being a big fan of British films of this era, I loved the references to actors and movies from the period but you don’t have to be familiar with them to enjoy the film.

There are fascinating insights into the writing process which will resonate with all you writers out there. When Mrs Cole delivers her rather lengthy script to Tom Buckley, he tells her to cut half of it. ‘Which half?’ she asks. The one you don’t need, he replies. A script, she is told, is ‘real life without the boring bits’.

In a nutshell, ‘Their Finest’ is a charming and bittersweet tribute to British filmmaking during the darkest days of World War II and the pivotal role of women on the home front.

Deborah O’Brien
16 April 2017