Charmingly old-fashioned yet exploring contemporary social mores, Their Finest is an unexpected experience. It’s a humble film which doesn’t set out to do much – but what it does, it does well. Based on the 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, the film is set in 1940 and follows the career of Catrin Cole (Gemma Arteton) as she lands a job at the British Ministry of Information’s Film Division, who churn out propaganda films. What she thought was a secretarial post quickly morphs into a scriptwriting role as she and the cynical but alluring Buckley (Sam Claflin) set out to film a feature based on the Dunkirk evacuation. They’re joined along the way by Bill Nighy (Ambrose Hilliard) and a host of other brilliant actors.
The film is a little jumpy at first, flashing from bombing scenes to immediately relevant plot-related scenes, and it takes a while for viewers to associate and sympathize with the characters. However, this could all be part of the effect that director, Lone Scherfig, was trying to capture as war time is rarely coherent. Scherfig’s flair is evident in this film, simple and every day, and harks back to the style of One Day, which may explain why I found it difficult to get into. She uses shock to try and engage the audience, rather than exploring emotions, and at times I felt some scenes were missing depth and explanation.
However, most of the characters once they do get going are fairly likeable. The lighthearted, humorous tone they bring is necessary for this film; to intersperse the tears with belts of laughter as the plot alone would leave viewers stunned or wallowing in despair.
What the film does excel at is imbuing the story with feminist perspectives which, for a film set in the 1940s, are refreshingly modern. The perceptions of women throughout the movie are outlined brilliantly and subtly, without the need for some misogynist to do the exposition work. Instead we hear a woman talk about men afraid that ‘we all won’t go back into our boxes’ and from Bill Nighy’s charming character that it would be giving ‘death dominion over life’ to refuse the opportunities granted to women during the war.
The film shows women taking a stand against their husbands, against random soldiers who want a kiss, against wages that are too low and men who think they’d do a better job. Yet somehow, while slanted toward a modern audience, it doesn’t slip into the farcical. Catrin, while bravely defying her husband to keep her job, is also meek in other aspects of her life. Buckley questions her self-respect upon learning that she changed her name to suit her husband. However Buckley is not a feminist either, referring to female dialogue as the ‘slop’ that no one else wants to write. The film cleverly showcases the plight of women at a time where gender equality was significantly lacking, but without overtly slapping the audience in the face with it.
Although portraying feminism in a refreshingly subtle way, the film is a let down in other respects, taking too long for me to feel truly engaged with the characters. A lot of scenes happen too quickly or seem irrelevant after they’ve passed such as Catrin’s survival through a bombing raid. She laughs at herself upon realizing the bodies around her are mannequins and then is shocked when one isn’t. The filming here jumps over her emotional reaction and flicks to a new scene, a discussion between her and her husband. What could have been mined for the character’s emotional development was dropped and left shocked viewers in the lurch, one step behind.
In terms of genre and style, Their Finest walks the line between a Rom-Com and Titanic. Thanks to Bill Nighy and surprisingly Sam Claflin, Their Finest generates bouts of laughter which helps keeps the film buoyant. It is filled with moments of bravery but most of all honours the powerful women who emerged from their boxes with no intention of going back into them. Even some of the sub-plot romance is driven by women making all the moves, which left the audience silently cheering. Although the historical and cultural accuracy of the film’s setting is sometimes questionable, it was nevertheless enjoyable and a film made for today’s sensibilities.