Ah,the British movie – still out there and still fitfully showing occasional signs of life, thank goodness. And trust me, films do not come much more British than Their Finest. (Terrible title, by the way, but based on a book called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which frankly isn’t very good either). However, the resulting film is much better than either title might lead you to expect.
It’s the early 1940s and London is suffering the worst excesses of the Blitz. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) arrives for an interview at the Ministry of Information (Film Division) thinking that she’s applied for nothing more than a secretarial post, but she soon learns that she will be expected to write the ‘slop’ for the informational films the unit is currently producing. Slop, by the way, is the far from sympathetic term for anything uttered by the female actors in the films. Furthermore, Catrin is told, she obviously can’t be paid the same money as ‘the chaps in the unit’, but £2 a week sounds attractive to her, because she’s currently paying the rent on the flat she shares with her partner.
Ellis (Jack Huston), is a struggling artist who was badly injured in the Spanish Civil War and who moonlights as an (unpaid) ARP warden. The problem is he doesn’t much like the fact that Catrin is the money earner. She finds herself seated at a desk next to opinionated young writer, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and she’s soon caught up in the struggle to get across a woman’s point of view into the scripts they are producing. It’s clear too that Catrin and Sam are probably made for each other, if they would only realise it. Then, the unit’s boss, Roger Swaine (Richard E Grant), announces that a more ambitious project is in the pipeline – a true life story set against the turmoil of the evacuation of Dunkirk…
OK, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking about this film, though it does have some decent ammunition in its armoury, not least the presence of Bill Nighy as over-the-hill actor, Ambrose Hilliard. Nighy’s scenes are probably worth the price of admission alone. He is fast approaching the role of National Treasure, an actor for whom the term ‘louche’ seems to have been specially created. His outrage at being asked to play the role of alcoholic old timer, Uncle Frank, is a joy to behold.
There are other pleasures too. The recreations of London during the blitz are nicely done, Arterton is as charming as ever and the film excels at demonstrating the arbitrary nature of life during wartime. A scene where Catrin chances on the aftermath of the bombing of a department store is very affecting. To lighten the mood, there are hilarious clips from the feature film that the unit is making, complete with dodgy miniature boats, unconvincing glass paintings of the evacuated troops and even the terrible acting of American war hero, Wyndham Best (Hubert Burton), drafted in to the movie to try and encourage the Yanks to engage with the war, raised a chuckle to two. And, just in case I’m in danger of painting this as a total laughter fest, the film also manages to lob in an unexpectedly heartbreaking emotional grenade that consequently had me in floods of tears.
All in all, this is a delightful film, well worth seeking out.