Their Finest (EuropaCorp USA, R)

I do have one quibble with the director: The portrayal of the film-within-a-film is comically out of date.

One byproduct of World War II was the opportunity granted to many women to work in occupations previously restricted to men, most often because there were simply not enough men available to do what needed to be done. Everyone knows about Rosie the Riveter, and some people know about the female “computers” and scientists who applied their mathematical and scientific skills to military tasks. Lone Scherfig’s latest film, Their Finest, follows the fortunes of a young woman gets got an unexpected opportunity in a different field—as screenwriter on films meant to boost British morale and encourage America to enter the war.

Their Finest, adapted by Gaby Chiappe from a novel by Lissa Evens (Their Finest Hour and a Half), begins in 1940, during the height of the Blitz in London. Copywriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is recruited by the British Ministry of Information to work on propaganda films. At first, she thinks they want her to be a secretary, but it turns out she’s been recruited to write better dialogue for the female characters in their films. That such dialogue is referred as “slop” by the men in the business gives you an idea of what Catrin is up against, but she’s determined and talented and before long she’s pitching a new project: an inspirational film about two sisters who, as the popular legend goes, used their family’s fishing boat to rescue Allied soldiers during the evacuation of Dunkirk.

One interview with the sisters reveals that their actual adventure was neither productive nor heroic, but the legend is too good to discard. Besides, it’s a perfect fit for the Ministry’s mandate to make films characterized by “authenticity informed by optimism,” so Catrin is paired with a more experienced screenwriter, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), to sculpt the sisters’ story into cinematic heroism.

Bill Nighy has a star turn as aging actor Ambrose Hilliard, who still has the attitude of a star, but isn’t getting any roles. After his indulgent agent Sammy Smith (Eddie Marsan) dies in a bombing raid, Hilliard finds himself in the far stronger grip of Sammy’s sister Sophie (a delightful Helene McCrory), who bluntly informs him that she can’t afford to keep unproductive clients on her roster. Thus does Hilliard find himself, rather reluctantly, playing the part of a drunken uncle in Catrin and Tom’s propaganda flick.

As Catrin becomes more confident with her writing, she learns to fight back against the disdain of Tom and the rest of the crew. She also realizes that she has set her sense of her own worth too low, settling for a relationship with a much older man (Jack Huston) who takes her for granted. In fact, he sees no value in her work, even though she’s paying the rent (he’s a none too successful painter, excused from military service due to an injury incurred during the Spanish Civil War). It all comes to a head when he expects her to quit the film business on a moment’s notice so she can go accompany him to Wales, where he has a show.

There are so many good actors in Their Finest that it’s impossible to name them all. Rachel Stirling is memorable as Phyl Moore, a government official who doesn’t bother to hide her resentment at the limitations placed on her because of her gender, nor of the fact that “the men are scared we won’t go back into our boxes when this is over.” Jeremy Irons makes a strong impression in what is essentially a cameo as the Minister of War, finding time to deliver the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V in the process.  The sense of period created by the production designer (Alice Normington) and costume designer (Charlotte Walter) is also excellent.

Their Finest is not on the same level as Scherfig’s best film, An Education, but it’s a good period piece and quite enjoyable as such. It’s surprisingly traditional as well, being as much a wartime romance as it is a tale of one women’s empowerment. That choice may be a positive or a negative, depending on your taste.

I do have one quibble with the director: The portrayal of the film-within-a-film is comically out of date, as they were working in the 1910s or 1920s (but with synched sound and color) rather than in the early 1940s. It’s true that film technology then was not as advanced as it is today, but people working in the film industry in those years were experts in creating quality films using the technology available to them. If you don’t believe me, check out, for instance, Gaslight (1940), Night Train to Munich (1940), or In Which We Serve (1942). | Sarah Boslaugh

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