After writing somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand reviews, it would be surprising if I didn’t have some sort of thoughts about why movies are so fascinating a subject. For me, it’s because they’re still the prime way that we tell each other stories, and stories are the foundation of culture. Stories are how we tell ourselves who we are, and what we value. A well-told story tells us something about — as the late David Foster Wallace put it — what it means to be “a fucking human being”. A poorly-told story sometimes tells us about nothing more than the cheap cynicism of the teller.
Lissa Evans understood this about movies when she wrote her novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, and Lone Scherfig carried it through her adaptation of the script for Their Finest. In the depths of the London Blitz, the Ministry of Information makes a pivot from boring informational newsreels to making a feature film that they hope will shore up British morale. And, with new scriptwriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) brought on board to punch up the “slop” — women’s dialogue — they hope to convince Britain’s distaff side that their husbands and sons aren’t being put in harm’s way for nothing.
To that effect they decide to make a movie about the Dunkirk evacuation. Yes, the same one as in Christopher Nolan’s project coming out this summer. They find a human interest story about a pair of twins who stole their drunken father’s tug and took it across the channel to help. Who cares if it’s wrong in nearly every single detail; “never confuse truth with facts, or either with a good story,” senior scriptwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) advises her.
And so the twins get cut down from thirty to just past twenty; Rose chatty and Lily quiet. The chatty one gets a love interest. The father is left asleep in the hold to serve as comic relief before an honorable death. Oh, and the Secretary of War (Jeremy Irons) decides he wants to use this to sell Americans on the idea of joining the battle, so they’re saddled with Norwegian-American R.A.F. pilot Carl Lundbeck (Jack Lacey), who can’t act his way out of a paper bag. And so Rose’s love interest becomes a love triangle, and so on and so on.
In fact, screenwriter Gaby Chiappe does such a good job with this aspect of her adapted script that it’s hard not to see it echoed in Their Finest itself. Of course there’s going to be a romantic tension between Catrin and Tom, but we have to keep them apart from each other so she has a husband (Jack Huston) with an injury keeping him in London as an air-raid warden. He’s an artist, which is romantic, but also sets up the idea that he’ll cheat on her while she’s away shooting the film at the Devon coast (played by southwest Wales). And we’ll lighten the mood with a self-important aging movie star (Bill Nighy) who considers the drunken father role beneath him.
Oh but the bumps along the way to getting the story on the silver screen, while enjoyable to watch, aren’t really that momentous. The early death of the movie star’s agent (Eddie Marsan) gives the idea of stakes, but doesn’t really carry through the rest of the movie. What can we do to add pathos? and once that complication is in place, let’s go back and add a secondary love story between the star and the agent’s bereaved sister (Helen McCrory).
Their Finest wears its artifice on its sleeve as nakedly as it exposes the movie Catrin helps write. And yet, like the story of two young women and their drunk of a father bravely rescuing a boatload of British soldiers — and a swaggering American journalist whose lines are mostly narration that can be recorded in voiceover — it still manages to charm. Arterton meshes well with both Claflin and Huston, as needs be. But, for my money, Nighy and Lacy provide the most entertainment, each delivering a character perfectly suited to their not inconsiderable talents.
But then we have to ask, what exactly is Their Finest trying to say? The inner movie may be a hacked-together crowd-pleaser, but it’s wrapped around a core of British resilience in the face of adversity, which message the public sorely needed at that point. So what’s the idea that makes the movie we watch more than a charming little pleasure cruise?
Well, there are some feints towards wartime feminism. Catrin chafes at the description of women’s dialogue as unimportant “slop”, though she doesn’t quite bat an eye at “of course we can’t pay you as much as we would a man”. But she keeps her dignity and thrives despite the adversity. There’s also Phyl Moore (Rachael Stirling), who is all but explicitly declared a lesbian, and who gets the line about men’s unease at the increased role women play on the homefront during the war. But little of this really goes anywhere.
As enjoyable a distraction as it is, there’s not much more to Their Finest than that. It feels good, and is excellently put together, but it’s not exactly built to last.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: surprisingly close, but it passes.