Perhaps the finest accomplishment of those who made “Their Finest” was in getting their World War II “Dunkirk” movie out before the bigger-budgeted, all-star cast “Dunkirk” recreation due out this summer.
Because their film, a war-on-the-home-front tale of a plucky would-be screenwriter working on a propaganda film, learning the movie business, the reality of “based on a true story” and finding a woman’s place can be outside the home, is utterly sublime, in its own way.
Based on a Lissa Evans novel, “Finest” is sentimental and sad, silly and vain as only film actors can be. It’s predictably familiar, but it manages to be an old fashioned movie about making an old fashioned movie that works.
Gemma Arterton is Catrin Cole, a Welsh woman whose secretarial duties at an ad agency broadened to include quip-writing for comic strips, what with the war taking every able-bodied British lad out of civilian work and into the army, Royal Navy or RAF.
That gets her noticed by a Ministry of Information screenwriter, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), who needs somebody of her gender to “write the slop…girl talk, women’s dialogue” in propaganda films.
Catrin needs the job as she keeps the home fires burning and supports herself and her man, an unemployed artist (Jack Huston) with a Spanish Civil War wound that keeps him out of the fighting. She must endure Tom’s flirtation, pretentious actors (Billy Nighy) and the caprices of the various ministries that want to bolster morale with films that reek of “authenticity and honesty,” even if audiences hoot at their ridiculous idealization of life in a munitions factory or the like.
A Hungarian emigre producer, Mr. Baker (Henry Goodman), plainly inspired by the ex-pat producer Alexander Korda, wants to make “the film that will win the war,” a commercial project with real actors and a UK and US release, and that sucks up Tom, Catrin & Co. in a frantic search for the right story told in a way that bucks up British resolve and inspires American sympathy.
Director Lone Scherfig (“An Education”) and screenwriter Gaby Chiappe tap into the novel’s focus on the era’s revolutionary changes for women. Catrin “can’t be paid as much as a chap” and is not destined for any credit.
“The war has SKIMMED off the CREAM and we’re left with the RANCID curds,” complains the faded matinee idol played by Bill Nighy, a dapper dandy not above seizing his last good chance at fame.
Women, the elderly and the less competent but ineligible for service have opportunity thrown at them. Catrin also has to make the most of it.
The film, in quick strokes and simple, resonant and familiar visuals, takes us into “The Blitz,” the German air war against civilian London, into the shelters in The Tube, where everybody kept a “stiff upper lip” by making their own entertainment, waiting for the bombers to pass so that they could “keep calm and carry on.” A nice touch — a trumpet player’s forlorn rendition of “Keep the Home Fires Burning” echoes through the underground crowd of Londoners awaiting the “All Clear.”
Scherfig similarly paints a vivid picture of a small nation wholly mobilized for war, with everybody having new tasks, pitching in. Catrin is just one among millions.
The “elite” bureaucracy is ably represented by Richard E. Grant, as the head of the propaganda film division, and Jeremy Irons as a higher-up given to quoting Shakespeare’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from “Henry V,” which became one of Britain’s most iconic morale boosting feature films of the war.
There are touches from “The 49th Parallel” and “Shadow of a Doubt,” for those who know what to look for in referencing “real” propaganda features made during the war. Their movie within the movie, as cheesy and primitive (toy boats, model airplanes) as you’d expect from the era, is to be about the Miracle at Dunkirk, when British civilians piloting all manner of ships and small boats rescued their army from fallen France, a disaster played up as a victory that saved Western Civilization.
Arterton, Nighy, Grant and Irons are splendid, and Jake Lacy of “How to be Single” is hilarious as an American born Norwegian pilot with the RAF ordered into the movie to provide “a REAL hero,” albeit one who cannot act a lick.
Eddie Marsan is a Jewish-German emigre actor’s agent, and Helen McCrory impresses as the agent’s flinty sister. Rachael Stirling makes a sympathetic go of a lesbian government informant assigned to the film to keep those tricky writers on message.
Less impressive are the film’s too-predictable situations, which offer few surprises outside of Catrin’s dogged insistence on making the girls who were the real life heroines of the Dunkirk story she chose to tell the heroines of the movie. Claflin, late of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Mockingjay” sequels, and Huston (“Outlander,” “Ben Hur”) have the weakest characters to play, and make no impression at all.
But “Their Finest” is still a lovely, nostalgic look not just at a war the Brits just can’t stop memorializing, but at the way movies were made way back when, with a little magic and a dollop of sentiment could carry a story for audiences starved for anything that offered them the possibility of a happy ending.
MPAA Rating: R for some language and a scene of sexuality
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons
Running time: 1:57