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The war-time comedy-drama Their Finest is one of the more mainstream offerings at the 2017 Glasgow Film Festival and certainly the type of film that would gain an audience in the British Isles.
It’s 1940, Britain is at war with the Axis powers and London is being bombed by the Luftwaffe. To raise morale the Ministry of Information wants to make uplifting films. But the Ministry has a major problem: their films have been unable to appeal to women. This is where Welsh woman Catlin Cole (Gemma Arterton) comes in: she is hired to write the ‘slop’, women’s dialogue and work with a team to make female-oriented films about the evacuation of Dunkirk.
As a fan of film and a student of history, Their Finest immediately appealed to me and it did not disappoint. Their Finest is the fourth British film from Danish director Lone Scherfig, a woman who has become adept at making British set movies: her most well-known being An Education, the film that turned Carey Mulligan into a star.
The risk of comedy-drama is that they may lean too much towards the dramatic side but not enough on the comedic. Their Finest avoids this trap and has the right balance of dramatic weight and being incredibly witty. This is because of Gaby Chiappe’s debut screenplay for a feature film, working from a novel by Lissa Evans. There is sharply witty dialogue throughout the film, enhanced by the performances of the ensemble. There are small moments of physical humor, like when a famous actor who makes an uncredited cameo performance gets a little handsy with Catlin, leading to some shocked facial expressions.
Their Finest has all the trappings of a rom-com: it has a central couple who start with a mutual dislike for each other, one of them is a humble working class girl and the other a pretentious public school boy; two slowly warm to each other. Fortunately, Scherfig and her team circumvent the conventions of the genre. The love-hate dynamic between Catlin and her co-writer Buckley (Sam Claflin) serves a purpose beyond a romantic will-they-won’t-they: she is also fighting her corner so that the female characters in the film actually have a role. The relationship is complicated because Catlin is married to a struggling artist and an injured veteran from the Spanish Civil War.
Their Finest easily works as a satire of the film industry and even in 1940 that writers and directors must fight interference from producers and meet their requirements. Catlin and Buckley are constantly thrown new challenges from the producers and the Ministry of Information, including not criticizing British engineering; the writers must find ways to accommodate an American character and change the ending because it was too morally ambiguous for American audiences. So the film industry hasn’t changed that much.
The movie also offers a quick insight on the screenwriting process – like the writers in Their Finest using index cards to set out the main plot points. When Buckley argues for the film to be made he quotes the philosophy of Braveheart writer Randall Wallace, that facts shouldn’t get in the way of the truth.
Throughout the film the spectre of death is ever presence because of the Blitz. Friends and acquaintances are lost, the bombing is nightly, leaving London devastated and when Catlin sees a dead body her reaction is understandably horrified. This threat gave Their Finest its dramatic weight. Yet even through all these attacks Buckley offers his small bit of resistance, working in his office and playing the radio as the bombs rain down.
Their Finest had an impressive cast of British talent: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy and Boardwalk Empire’s Jack Huston in major roles and having Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsden and Helen McCoy in minor ones. This alone would make Their Finest appealing for British audiences and the cast certainly impresses – especially Arterton who pulls off a convincing Welsh accent while Nighy was fun as a self-centred actor who still has delusions of grandeur. Claflin also impresses as Catlin’s foil and he has come a long way from being a poor man’s Orlando Bloom and showing he has comedic ability.
The other major selling point about Their Finest is it’s a major Welsh production: it was filmed mostly in Wales and received some Welsh funding. This shows that there is a greater regionalism in the British film industry – having already seen productions like last year’s Dad’s Army being filmed in Yorkshire.
Their Finest has been given a 12A rating in the UK but will most likely receive an R-rating in the USA because the film has more than the one allowed F-bomb and a quick sex scene.
A joke in Their Finest is that the film in production has everything, comedy, drama, romance and even a dog. That is a fair description of Their Finest, a film that has plenty of witty dialogue and dramatic moments – it is Scherfig’s best film since An Education.