British cinema often has a wry sense of humour about its own history, distinct from Hollywood’s direct line of self-skewering from Singin’ in the Rain to last year’s La La Land. With THEIR FINEST, director Lone Scherfig (An Education) brings an outsider perspective to the UK’s propaganda machine during the Second World War. Serving as a reminder of the sexist attitudes towards working women and how far we’ve yet to come as a society, it doesn’t always hit all the marks but is nevertheless a missive on the importance of stories.
Scherfig’s film is based on the 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans. The action picks up in London in 1940, where the Blitz besieges the populace. The Ministry’s film division feels that their propaganda films lack the sufficient “authenticity informed by optimism” to boost morale on the home front. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arteton) is hired to write the female dialogue (the ‘slop’) and give the films a “more convincing female angle.” While her artist husband (Jack Huston) is indifferent to her work, she earns the admiration of lead scriptwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin), and is also able to wrangle fading leading man Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy).
On the one hand, THEIR FINEST is a wee bit subversive in creating exactly the kind of propaganda it depicts in its own narrative. A quirky film about a plucky band of Brits who pull together for the good of the Empire is designed to elicit the same emotional responses as the film-within-a-film. Yet it’s also a wistful remembrance of a bygone era, and one that shares the same nostalgic look at a period in filmmaking that its American contemporaries do.
Like The Artist (or Hail, Caesar!), one of the key strengths of THEIR FINEST is the authentic recreation of a period and the look and feel of the films of the day. The filming techniques, colour tinting and even acting styles are pitch-perfect. Hilliard’s character is described as “a shipwreck of a man,” and is a wonderful amalgam of typical character roles of the time. Jake Lacy plays a hilariously inept token American, a forced placement by the Allies whose constant grinning is frighteningly apt.
Yet this authenticity extends to the premeditated story twists, such as the inevitable romance between Arteton and Claflin. Throughout the film, the government continually demands changes, including a “romantically satisfying” conclusion. Where the filmmakers in front of the camera resist this, the ones behind the camera of THEIR FINEST do not, resorting to a deus ex machina to undo the corner they paint themselves into. Even so, the film remains firmly within the realm of ‘feel good’ and reminds us that manipulative films are fine as long as our side is controlling the strings.