With films like Dunkirk, Churchill and The Zookeeper’s Wife all having been released or soon to be released, it seems like ’tis the season to be a Second World War picture. Getting in on the action too is Their Finest, a film that unlike Dunkirk or Churchill, attempts to give the audience an insight in to a part of the war that has not seen as much of the limelight in film and television over the years.
Their Finest tells the story of Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a Welsh woman living in London who begins scriptwriting work for the film department of Ministry of Information, producing ‘women’s dialogue’ for moral boosting shorts. Her talent soon recognised, Catrin is asked to join a team of filmmakers making a feature film about a pair of twin sisters taking part in the evacuation of Dunkirk. Accompanied by an ageing star named Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) and a cocky, mischievous co-writer named Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), Catrin faces degrees of sexism and adversity before she really given a chance to shine. In truth, Their Finest feels very much like a six part television drama that has been awkwardly crammed in to one two hour film. Whilst telling the central story of a ‘film within a film’, the picture also details Catrin’s marital troubles and her blossoming relationship with the confident Buckley, along with a significant focus on Ambrose Hilliard and his coming to terms with the fact that he is no longer leading man material. In trying to tell so much story in so little time, the narrative feels slightly muddy and lacks a really sharp focal point, at times even sacrificing time on the core film project in favour of Catrin’s romantic life, something that feels like a thematic misstep to me.
In fact, for a film marketed as something that celebrates the unseen achievements of a woman during WWII, there is a distinct lack of meaningful female characters in the picture. Besides protagonist Catrin and a suit wearing, caricatured lesbian ministry worker played by Rachael Stirling, the majority of the featured cast are male, with both Buckley and Hilliard taking centre stage for significant portions of the film. Take a recent picture like Hidden Figures, similarly a period piece highlighting the roles of women in seemingly unusual positions. That film is and was a perfect example of telling a story about female achievement that only briefly hints at romance in order to preserve the integrity of professional pursuits. Unfortunately, Their Finest chooses to highlight Catrin’s romantic life (albeit with one or two twists) over her professional life at nearly every opportunity, which whilst still making it a perfectly pleasing romantic period drama, stops it from becoming something that could really have been another fine example of British filmmaking that celebrates the strength of women (see Calendar Girls or Made In Dagenham). I think what I’m trying to say is that Their Finest isn’t a bad film at all, it just isn’t the film that I wanted it to be.
As leading lady Catrin, Gemma Arterton proves an endearing and engaging screen presence. There is just something about Arterton’s physicality and aesthetic that suits her perfectly to period pieces, and she brings a feistiness and assuredness to the role that makes Catrin a perfectly authentic feeling individual in her environment. As writing partner and part time love interest Buckley, Sam Claflin embodies that kind of swagger a handsome gentleman of that time possessed, though I wish that the film would have explored more of his feelings about being a fit and able man not sent to war because his talents were deemed more valuable at home. Did he feel shame? Was he thankful? We never really know more about him than the fact that he thinks very highly of himself and is clearly taken with Catrin from the off. Though I personally didn’t buy the chemistry between the two, other critics have praised the pairing, so make of that what you will.
Is a British film really worth its salt if is doesn’t star Bill Nighy? Clearly Their Finest didn’t want to take the risk. As the vaguely eccentric Ambrose Hilliard, Nighy steals almost every scene in which he features, and though he begins the narrative as a source of repetitive and at times grating humour, both the actor and character do settle in to the film and Ambrose arguably undergoes the most development of all the secondary characters. Nighy is up to his usual tricks, trademark finger funs galore and buckets of charm, but in the case of this specific actor I am often left wondering whether I spend more time noticing the actor rather than the character, you know what I mean?
Overall, Their Finest is a solid British period drama that boasts enough good performances and effective occasional humour, but with a promising rousing central premise that, to me at least, doesn’t quite feel like it is fully utilised until the very final scenes of the film. It’s not the best example of this kind of stirring wartime drama, but it’s far from being the worst.