Why WWII Film 'Their Finest' Is Disappointing (Despite Its Charm)

To encourage the U.S. to join in fighting World War II, Britain produced propaganda films to promote the idea. ‘Their Finest’ tells this story, though in an unfocused way

Gemma Arterton appears in a scene from 'Their Finest.'
Nicola Dove/AP

There are higher forms of praise than calling a movie “amiable,” especially a movie set during wartime; but that is the most appropriate word for describing Danish director Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest,” set in 1940 during the Blitz in England. I could have gone further and called the movie “pleasant,” and in choosing both adjectives I would mean to suggest that “Their Finest” is enjoyable to watch, but also that its plot could have become a more satisfying film.

If I am a bit disappointed with the movie, it may be because Scherfig also made the Danish “Italian for Beginners,” a charming 2000 comedy, and even more than that because she directed the excellent “An Education,” a 2009 British picture that not only introduced us to Carey Mulligan but wisely explored issues of class and society in England of the 1960s. Both of these films had a tighter structure than “Their Finest,” which allowed their plots to unfold more deftly; their characters were developed in more depth, and what messages the movies had to convey emerged from them with greater clarity and focus.

In 1940 Britain was still fighting alone, with its cities under nightly German bombardment. The United States had yet to step in, and to hasten the hoped-for American intervention, the British produced a great many documentary propaganda films. These were meant to boost morale at home and, when shown in America, to display Britain’s resolve to the world and thus to enlist American sympathies and maybe American help as well.

To increase the propaganda efforts, the British officials in “Their Finest” decide to produce not just short black-and-white documentaries, each one much like the other, but full-length features, and even to make them in color. The filmmaking department wants to appeal to American female viewers, who might then be willing to part with the men in their lives for a while when America joins the war. Since the department is entirely male, they need a woman to provide a female angle, which the department head (Richard E. Grant) believes consists mainly of writing “slop,” that is, the chatter in which (he thinks) women communicate with each other.

Enter the heroine, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), who comes to interview for what she thinks is a secretarial position. Because she has professional experience as a copy writer, however, she is hired to add “slop” to the department’s first feature. The planned movie will be based on the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, an operation whose dramatic memory was fresh in the British mind, and its focus will be the heroic true story of identical twin sisters who secretly took their drunk father’s boat to help with the evacuation.

Catrin, who immediately learns she will be paid less than the men, naturally encounters some hostility from her new male colleagues, especially the head screenwriter, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), who (like many cinematic filmmakers) is charismatic but tortured. Having seen this dynamic onscreen many times already, we know that what begins as rivalry between a man and a woman usually evolves into something else, even though Catrin is supposedly married to an artist, Ellis (Jack Huston), whose gloomy black-and-white paintings are not in very high demand among British art collectors, though they are probably supposed to express the country’s emotional state.

The most enjoyable parts of “Their Finest” follows the making of the department’s movie. The screenplay gradually moves away from the bizarre twins, whose “true” story as told to the media is meanwhile revealed to be less than accurate. Scherfig’s film thus joins a long list of films about movie-making, and while it lacks the heft of such precedents as Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s “Singin’ in the Rain” or Francois Truffaut’s “Day for Night,” some of the scenes following the production are entertaining as mild satire.

Too many directions

To increase the movie’s appeal, the department manages to persuade Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy, who predictably steals every scene he appears in), a past star whose ego has remained undiminished despite his declining career, to appear as the twins’ no-longer-drunk father, who in the revised screenplay even plays a heroic role in the evacuation. And in order to draw in American audiences, the producers add Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacey), a blond pilot who looks like a marquee idol, but has no acting experience and can’t make even the simplest line sound believable.

“Their Finest” shows the bombings of London, including the masses seeking refuge in the tunnels of the Underground, as well as the devastation left behind by the attacks. However, it does so cautiously, in order not to be too unsettling, while also portraying the Brits’ resolve and endurance in the face of the Blitz. In general, Scherfig’s movie (whose name is taken, of course, from Winston Churchill’s inspirational speech) seems to be saluting Britain’s so-called “stiff upper lip,” that understatement of feeling combined with a constant display of national pride. To do this, the movie resorts to irony, which is woven together with its comic, melodramatic and romantic elements (one short, funny scene shows Jeremy Irons as the British secretary of war, urging the filmmakers to continue their work despite the circumstances), but this blend pulls the movie in too many directions and causes it to seem unfocused.

Despite Gemma Arterton’s careful performance, Catrin is not developed enough; but this flaw is balanced out by the supporting cast, which in addition to Bill Nighy includes Henry Goodman as a Hungarian director (in those days, the producer and director who most influenced British cinema was Hungarian-born Alexander Korda). Finally, Helen McCrory is brilliant as Sophie, the energetic sister of Ambrose’s longtime friend and agent, Polish-born Sammy Smith (Eddie Marsan); taking over Ambrose’s career after Sammy is killed in a bombing, she turns out to be a tough agent who will not yield to the caprices of her star.

All in all, “Their Finest” is an amiable and pleasant movie; a bit funny, a bit sad. It might have been better than it is, but it has a certain charm to it, which – at least while you are watching it – manages to make up for the fact that the whole is less than the sum of its more promising parts.