In this World War II period piece, Gemma Arterton stars Catrin Cole, a copywriter living in London during the Blitz. She supports her husband, an unsuccessful painter who cannot serve in the war because of a leg injury. One of her clever ads catches the attention of screenwriter Tim Buckley, who works on propaganda films for the Ministry of Information. Buckley calls her in and offers her a job working on short propaganda films, writing women’s dialogue, which he refers to as “slop.”
As some exposition explains, films at the time were made with twofold objectives: to keep Brits on the home front informed of the war and to bolster their spirits. At the beginning of the war, the ministry produced films highlighting war heroes, but they were finding that audiences—mostly women, children, and the elderly—reacted better to stories that featured at least some everyday people they could relate to. So, when Catrin is hired, she is tasked not only with writing the “slop,” but also helping write a war film from a woman’s perspective.
Catrin finds a story in the news about twin sisters who used their father’s small fishing boat to aid in the evacuation of Dunkirk (during which nearly 340,000 soldiers were saved on 800 boats, many of which were civilian vessels). Catrin interviews the twins to uncover the details of their story for a potential film script, and she discovers that the newspapers had taken liberties with the actual events. The filmmaking team has a brief ethical debate over whether to go forward with calling their film a true story, to which Buckley proclaims, they are not simply telling one story, they are telling 300,000 stories. And thus The Nancy Starling is given the green light.
Bill Nighy comes into the picture as Ambrose Hilliard, an actor in his sixties having trouble finding work during the war, as films have practically halt production for the war movement. At the height of his career, Hilliard was the star of a series of popular detective films. Now he has trouble accepting his transition into supporting roles. When the casting call comes for The Nancy Starling, he needs some convincing from his new agent (Helen McCrory) to accept the role of a drunken uncle, and Nighy provides the film with comic relief, clearly relishing playing the prima donna.
Based on the novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half, this film no doubt had to cut out a lot of story, but what should have been the first thread cut was the tacked-on love triangle. It’s not really much of a conflict as we rarely check in with Catrin’s painter-boy husband. Instead the film constantly focuses on Buckley and Catrin finishing each other’s sentences, followed by the two gazing into each other’s eyes, before Catrin snaps out of her momentary bliss to remember she’s already bound to someone else in a marriage of convenience.
As the plucky Catrin, Arterton comes off as a facsimile of heroines from films of the time period. Perhaps because of the writing, Arterton plays her character rather flatly, which makes the two hours of this otherwise visually spectacular film drag by. Literally any of the other characters would have been more fun to watch in a central role, especially Rachael Stirling’s Phyl Moore, sent by the Ministry to oversee the film’s production. Phyl dons men’s shirts, ties, and suspenders, looking like she stepped out of an Ann Bannon pulp novel. Little clues are dabbled throughout about what’s going on with Phyl (notice the masculinized shortening of what is probably her full name, Phyllis), but by the end, it’s fully disclosed that Phyl is not just coded as lesbian, she has no qualms with anyone knowing. The inclusion of Phyl is very welcome, but the film, which purports to celebrate feminism, strangely relies on a by-the-book love story to anchor the film.
Sam Clafin from “The Hunger Games” series plays Buckley, Catrin’s cowriter and love interest. It’s said more than once that Buckley was “born in a bar, rising up spontaneously from the sawdust.” For all that hyperbole, he’s never shown on a real tear. Instead Buckley is often the voice of reason amid the craziness of the film production. Otherwise the man seems a upstanding Englishman. Why in the world Catrin would have any hesitation falling in love with Buckley after the film has made it annoyingly clear that the two were made for each other?
Their Finest is not without merits. As stated before, it is visually stunning, especially in its re-creation of London during the Blitz. Director Lone Scherfig (An Education) balances the tone very well, shifting from romance to humorous moments to the ongoing war. However, at one point Buckley admonishes Catrin that their job as filmmakers is to simply take people’s minds off their troubles for the “hour and a half” they give of their time. Ironic then that Their Finest, a two-hour film, keeps going and going way past the point audiences started checking the time on their phones.