Danish director Lone Scherfig has a chequered filmography. An Education, her 2009 Oscar nominee, was widely and rightly lauded, but One Day (2011) and The Riot Club (2014) fell on stonier ground. Their Finest couldn’t quite be called a return to 2009 form, but it is a solid, enjoyable couple of hours.
Gemma Arterton plays Catrin, a winsome young copywriter who, for reasons not too closely examined, lands herself a job writing morale-boasting propaganda films in Blitz London. It’s a blessing, as her husband’s earnings as a painter are meagre. Richard E Grant, one of the film’s wealth of British character actors, explains that the Ministry of Information needs a “more convincing female angle” for the wartime cinema-going audience, which at the time was overwhelmingly made up of women, for obvious reasons. Catrin’s brief is simple: to provide what is described as “slop”, or “women’s dialogue” for shorts to be screened alongside the main features. She is initially and inevitably underestimated by her male employers and colleagues, including fellow screenwriter and youthful curmudgeon Buckley, played by Sam Clafin. Eventually she gets her hands on a feature-length opportunity, a heart-warming tale about a pair of twin sisters who steal their drunk uncle’s boat to rescue soldiers from Dunkirk. Enter Bill Nighy doing his signature wry old coot bit, playing Ambrose Hillyard, the vain and ageing actor given the role of the drunk uncle. Their film runs into production issues, with ensuing hilarity and pathos. Eventually, the casually chauvinist hero eschews some of his casual chauvinism, and a very silly turn from Jeremy Irons and a charismatic dog is thrown in for good measure.
Tight structure is one of the film’s strongest suits and the film-within-a-film conceit is well handled. It’s also a watchable film about filmmaking; there are some lines about the arrogance of actors that wink knowingly at the audience but generally the process of 1940s film-making is rendered interestingly enough that it doesn’t feel self-congratulatory or navel-gazing. And the film within a film gives DP Sebastian Blenkov lots of opportunity to play with ‘40s soft-focus cinematography.
The film is perhaps too ambitious in terms of what it wants to cram into the plot. It tries to tie together a love triangle, a romantic sub-plot for Nighy, American involvement in World War Two, the propaganda machine’s machinations and a number of other elements. It doesn’t exactly spread itself too thin, but the film does end up feeling like a gentle affair for the most part, bumbling along and keeping the stakes fairly low. There is the odd peripheral corpse, but until well after the halfway point, the test audiences’ complaint about Catrin and Buckley’s film of “a lack of oomph” is a criticism that could be laid at Their Finest’s own door. A brutal twist at the film’s close makes up for some of this, however, and it’s probably reasonable to assume that Scherfig intends to lure us into a false sense of security with all the cups of tea, jolly trotting around London and earnest flute soundtrack. The love story between Catrin and Buckley develops without undue schmaltz, which is thankful and necessary given that the film within the film is schmaltz wall to wall, which is itself one of Their Finest’s most mined sources of comedy. And Their Finest is, in places, funny enough to throw the darker moments into relief and make the movie tonally intriguing.
Pleasingly and unusually, in addition to Scherfig herself, the film was mostly produced by women: the composer, the screenplay writer, the head producer and the production designer are all female. But in terms of what you actually see in the cinema, Their Finest is not breaking any gender political ground, and the film’s feminism is of the least provocative or intersectional kind. In fact, Lone Scherfig said in a press conference that she never considered Their Finest as being “primarily feminist” at all.
Not “primarily” feminist is an interesting way of putting it, and flags up something important about the way this film has been marketed. At a press junket for the London Film Festival, one of the film’s supporting cast, Rachael Stirling, responded to a question about whether the film is supposed to be feminist: “One can impose a feminist message on the film, but that’s not one that we’re standing apart and screaming about.” An annoying thing for her to say on several counts, yes. In a Guardian interview, Arteton was also wary of the word feminist, emphasising that “it’s not kind of shouty and aggressive”. This comment belongs to a trend of filmmakers tiptoeing around the word “feminist” even when it would be pretty uncontroversial to apply it, as well as playing up to the old stereotype of the ranting, belligerent women’s libber, but she’s right: this film does not scream its feminism.
However, it is there. While Bill Nighy might steal the show in the film, and his character might steal the show in the film within the film that was initially conceived as a tale of two young women’s heroism, but it is certainly no effort to “impose” a feminist message here. A (white, beautiful, straight…) woman gets some of the respect she deserves at home and at work, and ultimately finds happiness in a career rather than in a man. But Their Finest is, at heart, a cosy, national-treasure-starring Blitz flick, whose target audience is the Calendar Girls, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel crowd; in other words, middle-aged middle England. So if this film offers a palatably light-touch approach to gender equality for an audience who are a less likely bracket than some to see a film because it has feminist significance, that may not be a bad thing.
It is undoubtedly a shame, however, that the makers of Their Finest feel the need to downplay the film’s feminist message. That feminism has to be almost smuggled into the film in the Trojan horse of Blitz-spirit nationalism. It remains the case that women make up a paltry fraction of workers in the film industry at all levels, and it is this persisting discrepancy makes it particularly galling for Scherfig and her cast and crew to brush the feminist message under the rug. The novel on which the film was based, Their Finest Hour and a Half (a much better title than the shortened version), was the author Lissa Evans’s response to the discovery that there were dozens of uncredited women scriptwriters working for the Ministry of Information during the war, and her desire to tell their story. It is a shame that a film set in the 1940s about women’s unsung contribution to filmmaking still feels so relevant.