Their Finest

And it’s chocks away, stiff upper lips and hooray for the gals in this chipper wartime comedy drama from An Education director Lone Scherfig.

In fact, Their Finest is based on a Lissa Evans’ book  – ingeniously called Their Finest Hour and a Half – about the making of wartime propaganda movies under the command of the Ministry of Information, here lead by Richard E Grant.

“We want authenticity and optimism,” comes the mandate from Whitehall, a baton picked up by Henry Goodman’s Hungarian emigre movie boss (I sense of mix of Alexander Korda and Michael Balcon here), and passed on to his scriptwriter/producer Buckley, played by the improving Sam Claflin.

He in turn enlists the help of Gemma Arterton’s smart, pretty Catrin Cole, whose eye for a story and warm determination comes to the fore, just the sort of pluckiness that helps Britain through the war.

Underneath all the clipped vowels, there lurks a strain of real emotions that sweep the viewer along, nicely played and beautifully observed little details, a neatly tied-up package.

Catrin is shacked up with a painter (Jack Huston) whose ego fills their attic flat. We cheer on her blossoming as she works on the true story of two sisters who bravely join the flotilla to evacuate Dunkirk, aided by a drunk uncle.

The uncle, in turn, is played by Bill Nighy, as Ambrose Hilliard. a fabulously conceited old actor, who, as ever, gives the film a light touch imbued with forlorn introspection.

Romance develops between Claflin’s pompous arse Buckley and the rosy Catrin while she finds her scriptwriting voice, even though she’s only meant to be writing the “slop” i.e. the women’s dialogue. Hers is the film’s central journey, lending a feminist slant to the traditional war film nostalgia.

Meanwhile, Scherfig does a sterling job of navigating both the comic business of making the  preposterous Dunkirk movie, The Nancy Starling – not helped by the late recruitment of star power in the form of an American air ace – and the wistful, wasteful business of war, with the bombs dropping on London, the nights sheltering at Edgware Road tube station, the rations in Soho restaurants and the very real possibility of death.

And of course, the point being that with Catrin writing the script, the film within the film gets a female heroine, too.

“Films are shape, structure and meaning – unlike life – that’s why people like them,” is the message from the ministry, and Their Finest duly delivers it with style, wit and sensitivity, gentle propaganda for our own precarious times.

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