Keep Calm and Carry on Writing.

In a well-mined category, “Their Finest” is a World War 2 comedy/drama telling a tale I haven’t seen told before: the story behind the British Ministry of Information and their drive to produce propaganda films that support morale and promote positive messages in a time of national crisis. For it is 1940 and London is under nightly attack by the Luftwaffe during the time known as “The Blitz”. Unfortunately the Ministry is run by a bunch of toffs, and their output is laughably misaligned with the working class population, and especially the female population:  with their husbands fighting overseas, these two groups are fast becoming one and the same. For women are finding and enjoying new empowerment and freedom in being socially unshackled from the kitchen sink. 

The brave crew of the Nancy Starling. Bill Nighy as Uncle Frank, with twins Lily and Francesca Knight as the Starling sisters.

Enter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, “The Girl with all the Gifts“) who is one such woman arriving to a dangerous London from South Wales to live with struggling disabled artist Ellis (Jack Huston, grandson of John Huston). Catrin, stretching the truth a little, brings a stirring ‘true’ tale of derring-do about the Dunkirk evacuation to the Ministry’s attention. She is then employed to “write the slop” (the woman’s dialogue) in the writing team headed by spiky Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin, “Me Before You“).

One of the stars of the film within the film is ‘Uncle Frank’ played by the aging but charismatic actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy, “Dad’s Army“, “Love Actually”). Catrin proves her worth by pouring oil on troubled waters as the army insist on the introduction of an American airman (Jake Lacy, “Carol“) to the stressful mix. An attraction builds between Catrin and Tom, but how will the love triangle resolve itself? (For a significant clue see the “Spoiler Section” below the trailer, but be warned that this is a major spoiler!). 

As you might expect if you’ve seen the trailer the film is, in the main, warm and funny with Gemma Arterton just gorgeously huggable as the determined young lady trying to make it in a misogynistic 40’s world of work. Arterton is just the perfect “girl next door”:  (sigh… if I was only 20 years younger and unattached!) But mixed in with the humour and the romantic storyline is a harsh sprinkling of the trials of war and not a little heartbreak occurs.  This is at least a 5 tissue movie. 

Going underground. Gemma Arterton delightful as the novice screenwriter.

Claflin, who is having a strong year with appearances in a wide range of films, is also eminently watchable. One of his best scenes is a speech with Arterton about “why people love the movies”, a theory that the film merrily and memorably drives a stake through the heart of!  

Claflin and Arterton in “Devon” (actually the picturesque Porthgain Harbour in Pembrokeshire)

Elsewhere Lacy is hilarious as the hapless airman with zero acting ability; Helen McCrory (“Harry Potter”) as Sophie Smith vamps it up wonderfully as the potential Polish love interest for Hilliard; Richard E Grant (“Logan“) and Jeremy Irons (“The Lion King”, “Die Hard: with a Vengeance”) pop up in useful cameos and Eddie Marsan (“Sherlock Holmes”) is also touching as Hilliard’s long-suffering agent. 

But it is Bill Nighy’s Hilliard who carries most of the wit and humour of the film with his pompous thespian persona, basking in the dwindling glory of a much loved series of “Inspector Lynley” films. With his pomposity progressively warming under the thawing effect of Sophie and Catrin, you have to love him!  Bill Nighy is, well, Bill Nighy. Hugh Grant gets it (unfairly) in the neck for “being Hugh Grant” in every film, but this pales in comparison with Nighy’s performances!  But who cares: his kooky delivery is just delightful and he is a national treasure!

Adding a gloss to the matte. Ambrose Hilliard getting more into Dunkirk than the director would like.

Slightly less convincing for me was Rachael Stirling’s role as a butch ministry busybody with more than a hint of the lesbian about her.  Stirling’s performance in the role is fine, but would this really have been so blatant in 1940’s Britain?  This didn’t really ring true for me. 

While the film gamely tries to pull off London in the Blitz the film’s limited budget (around £25m) makes everything feel a little underpowered and ’empty’:  a few hundred more extras in the Underground/Blitz scenes for example would have helped no end. However, the special effects crew do their best and the cinematography by Sebastian Blenkov (“The Riot Club”) suitably conveys the mood:  a scene where Catrin gets caught in a bomb blast outside a clothes shop is particularly moving.

Moving. Arterton caught in a blast.

As with all comedy dramas, sometimes the bedfellows lie uncomfortably with each other, and a couple of plot twists: one highly predictable; one shockingly unpredictable make this a non-linear watch. This rollercoaster of a script by Gaby Chiappe, in an excellent feature film debut (she actually also has a cameo in the propaganda “carrot film”!), undeniably adds interest and makes the film more memorable. However (I know from personal experience) that the twist did not please everyone in the audience! 

Despite its occasionally uneven tone, this is a really enjoyable watch (particularly for more mature audiences) and Danish director Lone Scherfig finally has a vehicle that matches the quality of her much praised Carey Mulligan vehicle “An Education”.

Fad Rating:  FFFF.

Spoiler Section – You have been warned!

The twist in this film (with Buckley’s sudden demise) is to be commended for its audacity, but perhaps hardly surprising after the ‘bike scene’ in Lone Scherfig’s previous “One Day”.  The scriptwriter Gaby Chiappe neatly sticks the knife into Buckley’s earlier speech about “why people love the movies” (to summarise – movies, unlike ‘real life’ have a story arc and if something bad happens then you know it is all part of the story and the heroes will work their way through it to ride off into the sunset together.  Or, perhaps not!). 

Many movies have had a number of memorable ‘sudden and unexpected deaths’: 

  • Bambi’s mum in “Bambi” (scarring a generation of kids for life);
  • “Ring of Bright Water” (with the trench digger and his otter encounter doing likewise for me!);
  • Brad Pitt in “Burn after Reading”;
  • Travolta in “Pulp Fiction”;
  • and not forgetting the appalling punch to the gut delivered in “Bridge to Terabithia”! 
  • (Please suggest more examples in the comments!). 

But this one adds a memorable addition to the collection, callously delivered with Arterton just standing, frozen to the spot with a look of devastated horror on her face. Unexpected and brilliant!

Unfortunately, this twist did not please my wife, who left the cinema feeling extremely cross with the filmmakers for ruining the romantic ending and making the movie ‘more like life than a movie’!