One of the first things our protagonist in Their Finest learns is that truth can be twisted for film, and indeed, has to be. This is a brilliant set-up for exploring two distinct ideas – of forgotten women in wartime and of the distortion of reality through film.When it comes to charm, Their Finest is practically bursting with it. The basic premise is this: set in the 1940s, Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a former secretary who is appointed as a scriptwriter to work on a propaganda film about the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk.
Catrin is based loosely on the real-life Diana Morgan, a Welsh screenwriter who is mostly associated with her work for Ealing Studios. Catrin is first commissioned to write the “slop”, that is, the women’s dialogue in the film. She is forced to endure a relentless barrage of casual misogyny, from the fact that she will not be credited for her work to simply not being taken seriously by actors and producers alike – “and obviously we can’t pay you as much as the chaps”, remarks Roger Swain (Richard E. Grant) rather coldly. Yet carry on she does, and mid-way through a remarkable shift occurs as she begins to realise that her work is indispensable.
The film-within-the-film is being developed for propaganda purposes, and as such a suitable story about working-class heroes must be located. Head writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) believes he’s found one when he learns of two twin sisters who supposedly stole their alcoholic father’s boat in order to join the legendary Dunkirk rescue. Upon investigation by Catrin, it becomes clear that the real story is not quite so heroic. Indeed, the film’s presentation of these two poor, humble women starkly contrasts with the glamorised retelling of their story that later emerges. Catrin extracts the bare elements of truth from their narrative in order to appeal to the producers – a clear example of how reality is distorted in the cinema. Even her fabricated story is further twisted – characters are added, removed, roles are changed – until the original tale is unrecognisable. Such is the nature of cinema, Their Finest seems to say, for better or for worse.
There is, all the same, a present sympathy for the restrictive nature of working on a propaganda film. After all, many of the changes are out of the screen-writers’ hands, forced upon them by government bodies, or made necessary due to public perception of the roles of men and women. A hilariously clueless American RAF pilot is forced to join the cast, causing major (and humorous) delays with his inability to act at all. Luckily, the rest of the fictional cast is very competent, none more so than Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy). Hilliard is an aging actor who is better remembered for the past glory he achieved as a young man: he is a character of delicate pride, a thespian in every sense. When he is asked to play the role of drunken Uncle Frank, he refuses as he is repelled by the idea of an old man being played for laughs. It is only through Catrin’s careful persuasion that he eventually agrees to the part – and his eventual devotion to her is wonderfully paternal. Hilliard himself is a distinctly British character, with a few odd quirks and an undeniable charm that worms its way into even the iciest of hearts.
Their Finest is packed with what may be one of the best-known casts of the year. Lead superbly by Gemma Arterton and supported by Bill Nighy, Richard E Grant, Helen McCrory and Rachel Stirling, this is a film that although uncomplicated, manages to throw some surprising punches. The set pieces lend each scene a delightful tea-and-biscuit quietude and earnestness. The resulting sense of comfort becomes sorely needed as certain elements of the story take a turn for the worse. This is a war drama after all, and death thwarts happiness, purity and love. Death comes suddenly, it is shocking and often gory. One particular scene sees Catrin nearly hit by an airstrike. She is shocked to find human limbs scattered around her, until she recognises them as parts from shop-window dummies, laughing with relief. Then, she finds the real bodies. There could not be a better summing-up of the wartime experience of women – staggering from fear to absurdity to grief in rapid waves of raw emotion.
One death, however, plays out almost like a tragicomedy. Catrin’s lover stumbles unknowingly into direct danger, lacking any kind of peripheral vision that spurs an urgent need for the spectator to cry behind you! in pantomimic fashion. Despite the utterly silly circumstances of his death, the resulting spell of grief is as touching and believable as possible. Arterton carries the role with a dignified sort of restraint that allows just enough flexibility to convey her sadness without resorting to petty wallowing. Catrin is the definition of a leading woman; her final victory is the ability to rewrite the roles of the twin sisters to inspire women in cinemas forever. Though simple in style, Their Finest is both elegant and incredibly funny, destined to enamour even the stoniest heart.