Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy
Director: Lone Scherfig
Running Time: 117 mins
Synopsis: During the height of the Blitz in London during WW2, wannabe screenwriter Catrin (Arterton) finds herself a part of the latest large scale propaganda film detailing the Dunkirk evacuation of the Allied forces. Stuck writing the ‘slop’ aka female dialogue, she battles sexism, a vain lead actor (Nighy) and her growing affection towards fellow writer Tom Buckley (Claflin).
Let’s just get this out the way first. Bill Nighy is a delight and a national treasure. By far the strongest aspect of Lone Scherfig’s (director of One Day and An Education) WW2 era romantic drama is his nimble winning turn as Ambrose Hilliard. A vain, loquacious and energetic character, who risks disrupting the film within the film recreating the massive Allied evacuation from Dunkirk. Taking umbrage at the fact he has been written as a doddery old drunk standing between his nieces goal of sailing to France to assist, Ambrose locks horns with the brass involved. But seeing as his career is reaching its twilight years he has but little choice. Nighy graces this internal battle with charm, smarm and utter warmth, which quite frankly he can play in his sleep. It is in the quieter moments where he truly elevates this twee but witty film into something better. Whether in mourning the loss of a friend during one of the many nighttime bombing attacks or a late film heart-rending speech given to a character in pain, Nighy is just wonderful.
The film itself is solid enough and effectively mounted. Arterton leads with a captivating performance as Catrin. Determined to make it as a screenwriter despite her disability, that disability being that she is a woman. Yes this is 40s Britain and therefore women are deemed on a lesser scale than the men who dominate. Scherfig never overplays the feminist angle here, allowing it to subtly play into events without the need to make grandstanding speeches or exploit it to detrimental effect. Surrounded by hopeless, neutered men (her husband struggles as an artist and cannot fight due to an injury) yet ones who wield all the power Arterton gives Catrin a forceful strength that is hugely endearing. None are more challenging than the aforementioned Ambrose, with whom she shares a begrudging affection for, helped immeasurably by a strong chemistry between the two actors.
Even more challenging to her though is fellow writer Tom, Sam Claflin giving a decent if a touch bland performance, who both infuriates and beguiles her with his intellect, humour but innately sexist behaviour. Although it is hard to truly blame it entirely on him, in a culture of wilful female put-downs, it must be easier to follow the pack than champion a new angle. But through their numerous writing sessions together he begins to see her for the complex, strong and capable woman she is. The spiky banter between them has a sharp wit allowing us to fall for their courtship, despite the fact that Catrin is married to another man (Jack Huston, once more in a film that under-utilises his talents). If this all seems a little soapy and gag inducing Scherfig keeps things from falling too deep into melodrama, until an egregious turn in the third act blows everything out of the water. It is a turn that is both unexpected and staggeringly misguided, belonging more to a outlandish scene in a weekly soap than a heartfelt ode to working women during wartime. The outcome of the event results in some moving scenes, but ones that left me feeling oddly distant. My mind was too busy contemplating the contrivance of it all, with the beautifully acted performances the only avenue to me feeling moved in any way.
One aspect that Scherfig succeeds on wholeheartedly is the way she conveys the British movie industry at the time. Delving into the politics at play, via Richard E Grant’s bureaucrat, and constructing some handsomely realistic behind the scenes looks at how films of the day were put together. The noise of the set, the chaos of the constantly in flux production work, and the energetic bit players are well conceived, and add texture to proceedings. A glimpse at the early use of in camera effects to showcase the forces at Dunkirk is especially delightful, and gives way to a terrific visual gag.
Being a lighthearted period flick there is a slight Sunday teatime TV feel to it, with incident at the background to frothy character interplay. However Scherfig is a shrewder filmmaker than the soft lighting and gentle score make her out to be, adding in some darker turns that carry much needed heft. Setting the film at the height of the Blitz adds an air of foreboding tension, in which at any moment a wayward bomb could smash everything to pieces. One such explosion is effectively staged, involving mannequins it starts off shocking, giving way to relief before a further discovery brings the horror home with startling effect. It gives the film a harder edge and just about manages to make the somewhat melodramatic moments far more palatable.
Verdict: A charming and handsome film, that uses its harsher glimpses and terrific cast to gloss over the somewhat cheesier aspects of its latter parts. Their Finest is a slight but indisputably warm time at the movies.