‘Their Finest’ represents a particular long-running strain of British filmmaking – nationalist period pieces with a touch of comedy and heaps of melodrama. It’s not a particularly high-minded or ambitious little feature, but it will cause smirks and smiles in all the right places. That counts for something.
The ever-delightful (and too often underused) Gemma Arterton stars as Catrin Cole, a young woman living in London during the German blitz. Her husband, Ellis (Jack Huston), is an artist of the struggling sort, so she’s forced to find work to support their semi-happy home. She ends up falling into the most unlikely of professions – screenwriting. The British government is cranking out propaganda pictures and needs women to help write the female dialogue. Catrin is partnered with the brutish Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), an alcoholic with a heart of gold. Together they transform the true story of twins into a wild wartime romp featuring Bill Nighy as a pompous British character actor reduced to playing an alcoholic uncle (the horror!). Lessons are learned. Laughs are had. It doesn’t end in a tidy bow, but it isn’t exactly a horror show either.
There are many ways that ‘Their Finest’ could have gone wrong. It could have been too sentimental or too silly or just plain too much. Thankfully, it fell into the hands of Danish director Lone Scherfig (‘An Education’). The Dogme95 veteran has a knack for crafting movies with stark tonal shifts balanced somewhere between absurd comedy, soap opera melodrama and harsh realism. ‘Their Finest’ fluctuates between all those tones. While sometimes that can induce whiplash in viewers uncertain of what they’ve gotten themselves into, the movie mostly works. It’s ultimately a bit of rah-rah Britannia not entirely divorced from the wartime propaganda pictures that the film lovingly reproduces and gently satirizes. However, it’s done with such a willful disregard for good taste and stuffy period drama predictability that it kind of works thanks to the filmmaker’s wildly varying tones competing for attention.
At the center of things, Gemma Arterton is a rock, playing it completely straight and tossing off the comedy when need be. She anchors the feminist fable and plays large emotions through small gestures. On the comedic side, the film is filled with delightfully odd performances that range from sketch comedy parody to subtle deadpan. Bill Nighy unsurprisingly steals the most scenes. He’s essentially playing a Bill Nighy type, but gets to do so through a rollercoaster of scenes that vary from reserved and real to goofball mugging, and nails it all with class. Everyone is strong except a few people whose characters are too slim to offer much. When the cast list features names like Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons, Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory, it’s safe to say that it has far more hits than misses.
Production values are high, so the detail of the wartime London sets and costumes are impressive. The bombed-out streets feels endlessly dangerous and the shaking sets create a realistic world crumbling around the edges. At the same time, Scherfig and her crew enjoy recreating old-fashioned movie magic as much (if not more) than their contemporary illusions. The old sets and faux Technicolor digital timing are magically transporting. Though often played for camp, the classic studio craftsmanship is beautifully recreated, enough so that you’ll wish Scherfig was simply allowed to make a full 1940s propaganda movie homage without any of the wraparound plot. That was never going to happen, of course, but one can dream.
Ultimately, ‘Their Finest’ is just a bit of fluff. Its themes have been endlessly repeated in the British film industry. The film’s plot doesn’t feature many surprises and the fuzzy feels arrive at the end like clockwork. Nonetheless, within the structure of a feel-good British period flick (not coincidentally lavishly funded by the government), Scherfig toys around with convention and tone enough to make it easier to sit through than most. The movie has odd bursts of almost inappropriate comedy and sudden blasts of unexpected tragedy that will keep viewers on their toes as they bounce through a familiar awards-bait story structure that they all know a little too well. It’s a better standard-issue prestige period pic from the UK than most, but still not quite daring enough to stretch beyond established formulas.