Their Finest: Film Review
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan, Rachael Stirling
Director: Lone Scherfig
Their Finest may purport to be a proto-feminist rant disguised in a down-pat traditionalist rom-com that nostalgically gazes back on the cinema, but it, unfortunately, can't help losing sight of the bar it sets out early on.
When Gemma Arterton's Welsh wife Catrin Cole comes to the ministry of war for a copy-writing job, she's put to work writing for the 'slops', the female element of informational films made to keep morale high in 1940s war-torn Britain.
Of course, she accepts this role, on a lower income than her male counterparts naturally, but finds herself involved in the making of a propaganda film about two girls who saved the day to rally the cinema-going Brits in the Blitzkreig.
(In an irony, her husband is an Italian painter, whose works are shunned because he captures the grim reality of daily bombings on the canvas and doesn't register that brow-beaten Brits don't want to revel in that and prefer the pomp and escapism of the movies' rosier view on life).
However, the Ministry of War's mantra is that the film, about a pair of women who rescued the lads from Dunkirk, should have "Authenticity and honesty" as its raison d'etre, so Catrin finds herself decamping to Devon (doubling as Dunkirk) and working with a none-too-impressed Buckly (Hunger Games star Claflin, complete with round glasses, stiffly Brylcreemed and viciously parted hair and spiffing moustache).
Initially reticent to a woman being involved in the proceedings, it doesn't take a genius (or budding screen-writer) to see how this will play out as the banter between the duo and animosity sets in.
While large portions of Their Finest have a degree of genial predictability to them, a great deal of An Education's director Lone Scherfig's period piece is wonderfully tolerable, deeply nostalgic to the old cinematic ways and equally largely amusing to any cinema-loving audience member, with a hint of reverence to the old Pathe news reels that unspooled before films of the era.
It's mainly due to the meta-touches about making cinema which are peppered liberally throughout and do a lot to genuinely carve an atmosphere of love for the cinema-making experience.
An early scene sees Cole and Buckly spit-balling story ideas around the planned journey of their protagonists in front of a blank board; and it's simply joyous to behold the quick-fire pitching in action. While cinema-lovers will get a lot from touches like this, Scherfig's adaptation of Lissa Evans' novel isn't a mutually exclusive club, with gentle broad comedy being lashed throughout.
And even though the wilting of Catrin continues through the back half of the film, and the movie follows its own sign-posted "Comic life, tragic death, tears all round" mantra and tonal jerking of the promised romance to teeth-grinding annoyance levels, some of the supporting players of Their Finest add a great deal to the unfolding screen broth.
Most of the kudos goes to Bill Nighy's ageing actor Ambrose Hilliard, a former screen star whose expressions and dismissive touches when he's offered the role of an older character, described as a ship-wreck of a man, are nothing short of sublime.
With his wry mocking of the time in the limelight and puffing of his own ego, a scene-stealing Nighy is Their Finest's MVP by far, and he relishes every single moment on screen with such joie-de-vivre and wearied delusion, that it's impossible to not love this man and revel in his on-screen time and general chutzpah.
By the same token, Rachael Stirling's lesbian "ministry spy" keeping in check the film-makers has a deliciously tart line in withering put-downs, as well as giving voice to the female movement so often confined to the sidelines on the screen adaptations of that time.
There are large portions of the character moments that hang together in a nostalgic glow, and make Their Finest feel like a film from yesteryear.
Ultimately, Their Finest works best when it doesn't concentrate on the romance elements of the film.