The new film, Their Finest, is about patriotism and self-sacrifice, and a love letter to the art of filmmaking. It’s also a lesson for today’s screenwriters in how to craft a script that treats its characters with complexity and humanity rather than lazy political tropes. Men in particular are treated with nuance in Their Finest, a tonic change in a movie era when guys are shown as either ogres or superheroes.
Their Finest is the story of Catrin Cole (Gemma Artertron), an advertising copywriter living in London during the German blitz of World War II. Cole’s work is discovered by the Ministry of Information, thanks to screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Cole is hired to write “the slop”—the dialogue for women in propaganda films. Catrin’s husband Elli (Jack Huston) is a struggling artist whose bleak paintings are having trouble finding an audience, so Catrin’s salary brings some financial relief.
Catrin displays a gift for crafting scripts and dialogue, and is sent to interview twin sisters, Lily and Rose, who—at least according to the newspaper reports—took their father’s fishing boat, The Nancy Starling, and helped with the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, the French town which was under attack from the Germans. Ministry of Information director Roger Swain (Richard E. Grant) is so moved by Catrin’s story about the twins that he decides to make a feature film about them. The point is to boost morale on the home front and entice the United States into joining the war, but thanks to Catrin’s talent, Swain also sees the possibility of creating something artistically great.
Getting the film actually made, however, will not be easy. There isn’t much of a budget, and the actors can be difficult or have limited ability. Elderly has-been Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) is having trouble accepting that the better roles may have passed him by, and is appalled when a heroic American pilot named Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy) is shoehorned into the production as an actor to appeal to the U.S. audience. When asked to mentor Lundbeck, Hilliard refuses, making a wonderful speech about the significance of being an actor, a noble profession which doesn’t, and shouldn’t, automatically translate into holding the hand of a non-actor who has been thrust in front of the lights. Catrin steps in, transforming Hilliard’s role in The Nancy Starling (the film is named after the ship) from drunken comedic buffoon to a dignified and brave uncle, her ego massaging bringing Hilliard around. Directed by Lone Scherfig and written by Gaby Chiappe from a novel by Lissa Evans, Their Finest is filled with such scenes, a funny and well-acted celebration of the camaraderie, friendships, and nuts-and-bolts fixes that go into making a film. Their Finest also shows how, once the lights go down, film has the power to tap into deep human emotion and move an entire culture to aspire to virtue.
Their Finest is especially noteworthy for the multidimensional way it treats its characters. Catrin is a female writer in England in the 1940s. Were Their Finest an American film, the men who doubt Catrin would likely be portrayed as violent, misogynistic brutes, making clumsy passes at Catrin and ordering her to iron their shirts or make dinner. Hollywood loves to go back in time and reveal people from the past to be the worst kind of racists, sexist and bullies—the kind of retroactive repression seen in films like The Help, Mississippi Burning, Mona Lisa Smile, Hairspray, and Remember the Titans. In the age of political correctness at the movies, the jocks are always cruel, Christians are always bigots, minorities are always numinous, suffering souls, and all white people from the past are devils.
By contrast, Their Finest treats its characters as fully human. Gemma Artertron is great as Catrin, her doe eyes quietly expressing determination, intelligence and empathy. Helen McCrory is smart and assertive as Sophie Smith, a woman who has to take over her husband’s business as a theatrical agent when he is killed by a bomb. Rachel Stirling gives a suitably taut performance as Phyl Moore, a closeted lesbian who works in the Ministry of Information and is a stickler for detail. A refreshing and humane film released on the brink of the summer blockbuster noise, Their Finest is a film worth seeing.