The frustrating thing about reviewing Their Finest is that to have some of the most interesting discussions around the film and what it’s doing, you have to know how it ends, and giving that away in this review would make me a real jerk. Luckily, there are some things I can tell you about the superb casting, the self-referential nature of a film that features the making of a film, and how important it is that there were so many women involved in the making of this movie. So we’ll do that, and I’ll leave you to have some of those other discussions with friends and bartenders after you see Their Finest. Because you should see Their Finest.
Based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, the movie tells the story of an early 1940s effort by the English Ministry of Information to craft a compelling film that would bolster the spirits of the British during some of the darkest days of World War II. It’s essentially a propaganda effort, but these are the good guys, so it’s fine. The good guys, though, need a good woman to “write the slop…women’s dialogue. Girl talk,” and so they recruit Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) to work with flavor-of-the-moment writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), scripting a heroic tale that can capture British hearts and imaginations. And in one of the funniest turns in the film, American hearts as well.
Catrin fights for her own equal rights as a writer, but she pushes even harder to let the young women at the center of her and Buckley’s story “do something,” and ideally something heroic. Given the state of women in cinema even today, it won’t shock you to learn that she’s facing an uphill battle. Buckley and the other men are convinced that “Girls don’t want to be the hero, they want to have the hero and be had by the hero.”
With that central tension, it’s noteworthy that Their Finest has an exceptionally high number of women behind the scenes. Directed by Lone Scherfig (An Education) and with a screenplay by Gaby Chiappe, women worked in many of the other aspects of production as well, including editing, art direction, production, and design. As a result, the struggle of a woman to be taken seriously working on a movie is one of the most meta things in an incredibly meta film, particularly since Their Finest is set more than 75 years ago. The landscape has certainly changed, but it’s no secret that women are still underrepresented in Hollywood, Their Finest being the exception rather than the rule. Studios now are just less transparent about the pay gap between men and women; Catrin was explicitly told she’d be paid less than two thirds what “the chaps” made whereas Jennifer Lawrence had to read about it in the news.
One of the talented women involved in the production of Their Finest is Lucy Bevan, who did a memorable job casting the film. Of course kudos go to the actors and writers as well. But to Bevan’s credit, from Rachael Stirling, playing a Ministry handler with great lipstick and even better one-liners to Jake Lacy (Obvious Child) as a gallant American ringer, to a very brief appearance by Jeremy Irons as a Secretary of War with an affinity for the St. Crispin’s Day speech, you’ll leave the film unable to imagine anyone else in even the minor roles. Bill Nighy is the stand out as Ambrose Hilliard, a fading icon who serves as both a comedic voice in the film and a reflective one. Playing a “60-year-old who looks older,” it’s a more fleshed out and slightly more serious version of the Love Actually character that made him famous – at least among Americans.
The film isn’t perfect. For better and worse, Their Finest is darker and more chaotic than you would guess from the marketing. There is a war going on, after all, and England wasn’t protected from air raids by the Atlantic Ocean like people were here in the US. That the death and destruction is arbitrary is part of the point, though it does get heavy-handed at times. There’s also a lot of the self-referential winking and nudging that comes with movies about making movies: the assertion by a character that every movie needs a dog followed by the introduction soon after of a dog into Their Finest. The full moon shows up at the perfect time, followed by the commentary that the full moon has shown up at the perfect time. Then there’s discussions of happy endings and love triangles that aren’t even subtle in their applicability to Catrin’s life, etc.
But even when laying the messages on a little thick, Their Finest raises questions worth considering about fiction, the role of women in film, grief, and facing an uncertain future. Plus, the writing is clever and the cast is top notch. So go watch it so that I have someone to talk with about how it all ends.