A British film crew attempts to boost morale during World War II by making a propaganda film after the Blitzkrieg.
Director: Lone Scherfig
Writers: Gaby Chiappe (screenplay), Lissa Evans (novel)
Stars: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy
Closed captioning and descriptive narration available.
Love and laughter flow so naturally in “Their Finest” that it is almost (almost) easy to forget there’s a war on. An unalloyed charmer, the movie tells a story of familiar British grit and resolve during World War II from an attractively different angle: that of an advertising copywriter, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), who’s recruited by the government to join the film industry. Britain wants the United States to enter the war, and has decided cinematic propaganda is the way it can persuade the movie-mad Yanks to sign up. The world is facing a historic catastrophe, after all; but for this ambitious young woman it’s also a bittersweet opportunity.
It’s the latest addition to an appealing British subgenre: the home-front story that reminds you that among grim air raids and explosions, people also just lived their lives, sometimes with laughter and unexpected new freedoms, as in John Boorman’s 1987 autobiographical film, “Hope and Glory,” about childhood during the Blitz. The director of “Their Finest,” Lone Scherfig, is Danish (her breakthrough was “Italian for Beginners”), but she has carved out a curious niche making British period stories, most notably “An Education.” She has fine timing and wit — the behind-the-scenes filmmaking sections in “Their Finest” are delightful, note-perfect sendups — and while her visuals tend to be overly buffed, she’s more ambitious with her performers, who retain their rough, human edges.
After being called up to duty, Catrin is paired with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), a dyspeptic screenwriter who nonetheless grasps her talent. With British men off fighting the Nazis, the domestic film industry needs all the help it can get, even if this means deviating from its entrenched sexism. For Catrin, who’s shacked up in a bleak London flat with her husband, Ellis (Jack Huston), the new career and its opportunities are as welcome as the pay. La vie bohème doesn’t seem to be cutting it, especially because Ellis — a struggling painter given to slashing, cluttered canvases in shades of dung (the movie is clearly on the side of the popular arts) — insists on stirring up trouble.
Adapted by Gabby Chiappe from a novel by Lissa Evans, “Their Finest” settles into focus once Catrin and Buckley start working on a film intended to rally the United States to the cause. Initially assigned to writing “the slop,” or women’s dialogue, Catrin quickly rises to the occasion, typing reams of dialogue while gracefully, sometimes messily navigating a crowd of tetchy narcissists, mostly male. Even with so many men away at war, Catrin is outnumbered at work, which makes sense, given the film industry. Yet partly because “Their Finest” is so wonderfully cast, both Ms. Arterton and her character often come close to being upstaged by their scene-stealing male cohort, a somewhat perilous turn for a female-driven story about a woman finding herself and her voice.
A pleasant, somewhat stolid presence, Ms. Arterton nonetheless manages, mostly through sheer screen time, to create a character who can hold her own against these free-ranging peacocks, none prouder and screechier than Buckley, a romantic foil whose sourness Mr. Claflin keeps in check with glints of soul. It’s an alluring performance, pitched between leathery guardedness and vulnerability, and spiked with the genial self-abnegation that defined Hugh Grant’s early career. Mr. Claflin could have run off with “Their Finest,” except that he’s just one in a gang of wily thieves who include Eddie Marsan, Jeremy Irons, Jake Lacy, Richard E. Grant (king of the reaction shots) and that sly puss Bill Nighy as a faded star in permanent high dudgeon over his career.
As the film-within-the film progresses and as Catrin struggles with her own drama (and romantic agonies worthy of a classic women’s picture), a few others muscle into the boys’ club, including Phyl (Rachael Stirling), a dispenser of feminist truths in slacks. The character who most beautifully embodies the story’s ideals, though, is Sophie (Helen McCrory), who, as a talent agent, brings man and dog to heel in a few short, barbed scenes. She’s the kind of no-nonsense woman you can imagine contributed to the real war effort, including in the film industry. “Their Finest” is too understandably serious to be called a romp, yet it has a buoyancy that lifts you and, in Ms. McCrory, a woman who does, too.
-Manohla Dargis, NY TIMES