It's always disheartening to see a movie fail to capture audience's attentions like it should. And whether you believe 2017 has already presented some incredible films, or the worst, it's impossible to make a decision without seeing Their Finest. Lone Scherfig's tale of perserverance is both a love letter to WWII-era production in Britain, as well as a blistering condemnation of the double standards, in film and life, that are just as fresh today as they were in the '40s.
Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is struggling to make ends meet for her and her husband. She takes what she presumes to be a secraterial post for the British Ministry of Information, only to become a collaborative screenwriter writing "slop," or women's dialogue for morale boosting war pictures. Working alongside the cantankerous William Buckley (Sam Claflin), Catrin tries to assert herself, both in life and through the script of a film meant to galvanize war-torn audiences.
Based on Lissa Evans' novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, Their Finest deals with tough topics in a way that remains ebullient and charming. Set during the London Blitz, Catrin navigates through the rubble of ruined houses, and constantly wonders if she'll make it home from the train station before an air raid. Gemma Arterton does amazing work as Catrin. She's chronically upbeat, afraid of showing her true fears at the risk of being sent away by her husband Ellis (Jack Huston) or being perceived as a weak woman by Buckley. After a bomb goes off, Catrin laughs at the ruined manniquins all around her, only to lose her composure when a real body is among them. Catrin breaks down in private, unable to express who she is.
Scherfig never shies away from exploring the double standards in cinema that remain true today. When Catrin is hired, she believes she'll be someone's secretary, never thinking she'll write anything of substance. She's tasked with interviewing two twin sisters who saved troops at Dunkirk, and when the story is later deemed to be unsuitable for a movie, she risks her career to see it made. Catrin is a competent screenwriter, but is continually reminded of her "inferior" status. Buckley tells her she's writing slop because women's dialogue is supposedly beneath a male writer's capabilities and when hired she's told she can't be paid more than the men. Even when she offers a bit of friendly script advice to the film's star, Ambrose Hilliard (a daffy Bill Night), it's met with scorn. Their Finest isn't just honoring the films of WWII, but the women who silently contributed.
It's also an ode to the pro-British spirit of 1940s filmmaking. Some of Their Finest's most delightful moments are watching Catrin's film blossom on the screen, complete with a nod to early Technicolor, which looks beautifully muted on-screen. The story of sisters Lily and Rose, and their attempt to help troops at Dunkirk is completely in line with pro-war films from both America and Britain during the war years. It's also hilarious in how much it conforms to typical Hollywood thinking. Buckley and Catrin argue over why one of the girl's needs a boyfriend; one who has to be named "Johnny" because who wouldn't swoon over a guy with a name like that? When a crucial plot point in their narrative requires someone to save them, Catrin doesn't understand why Lily or Rose can't save the day. These are, again, elements we see in modern films, and Their Finest smoothly questions why entertainment continually undermines females in power.
The rest of the cast comprises practically every Britsh actor you enjoy, all guided by Arterton's controlled performance. Bill Nighy steals the show as the blowhard actor Ambrose Hilliard. He gets a subplot opposite Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory filled with just as much heart as the main narrative. Sam Claflin proves he can transcend his pretty boy characters and carves out a character who frustrates at every turn but, coupled with Arterton's likeability and Gabby Chappe's script, becomes a character whose fate you care about. Other Brits like Jeremy Irons, Richard E. Grant and Jack Huston pop up for some fun, as well. Jack Lacy also deserves some props as the lone American in the production. Lacy's dimwitted Carl Lundbeck looks like he's auditioning to be Rolf in The Sound of Music but possesses a sweetness that hooks your heart.
Lone Scherfig's audio commentary is really the only significant bonus feature, alongside a standard making-of feature. Scherfig does a great job of discussing the film's production, the actors and the setting. Honestly though, you aren't buying this for the features but the fact it's the year's best film.
Their Finest is nothing short of spectacular! If you enjoyed Scherfig's previous films, particularly An Education, this is a similar exploration of femininity through a historical lens. If anything this is a more accomplished production, from its story to cast. Though recalling a previous era the film's exploration of filmmaking brings up many questions about women's limitations. Their Finest is just a balm for the soul that provides social commentary in equal measure.