British FF Review: Their Finest

A celebration of cinema, and particularly the art of storytelling, Their Finest is the kind of crowd-pleasing gem that reminds you why we love the movies. Cleverly wrapping its irresistible ingredients inside a film within a film, it gives you a nudge and a wink with every perfectly pitched manipulation.

It’s London, 1940. Smart and plucky Catrin (Gemma Arterton) has made her way over from Wales with her struggling artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston). His mud-coloured, depressing paintings are not finding favour with a depression-era public.

Fortunately Catrin lands a job with the British Ministry of Information’s film division. Working on propaganda shorts that are screened in cinemas, her initial function is to write ‘slop’ – an industry term at the time for dialogue between women. Soon though her writing smarts see her graduated to co-scripting a feature film.The directive from the head honchos is display “authenticity informed by optimism”.

We witness the process of the creative team conjuring ways to make the script entertaining while following management’s nebulous instructions, like illogically introducing an American character to appeal to a larger overseas market. Catrin also has to accommodate the demands of an outrageously vain but over the hill movie star, Ambrose Hilliard (the reliably brilliant Bill Nighy). The constant ego pampering required to get Hilliard to accept the relegation to a supporting role is the source of much of the film’s humour.

Meanwhile, Catrin drifts apart from her husband and becomes close with her writing partner Tom (Sam Claflin). The dynamic of their personal relationship gradually synchronising with the characters in the film they’re writing. It’s one of many such synchronicities, Catrin personally faces gender inequalities on a daily basis while fighting to have the fact-based achievements of the female twins at the heart of her script from being edged out by fictitious male heroics.

This is indeed a film for film lovers and will particularly appeal to those with fond memories of Merchant Ivory productions. Like the best of those films, this is rich in period detail, features a gallery of top British character actors in colourful roles and a strong-willed heroine at its centre.

Danish director Lone Scherfig strongly evokes a sense of time and place, as she did with the equally excellent An Education. She skilfully balances the film’s elements to give us a something that satisfies equally as an intimate romance, a large scale war drama and a sharp comedy.

While the film within a film is a desperate grab to boost a nation’s morale, Their Finest is itself a clear-eyed celebration of the importance of cinema to get us through troubled times, but it’s a message delivered with a light touch.

It’s the kind of message, and the kind of production, that should win a few votes at next year’s Oscars. No doubt it will also do wonders for the careers of Arterton, who is such a warm and luminous presence here, and Claflin, who until now has had smaller roles in bigger, less subtle films.

The Brit stalwarts in the supporting roles include Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory – a delight as Hungarian sibling talent agents, Jeremy Irons as a sanctimonious Secretary of War, and Richard E Grant in atypically restrained mode as the film division’s head. Towering above them all though is Nighy, who has a field day with the film’s flashiest role. While it’s true the part of Hilliard plays right into his wheelhouse, this is the best he’s ever been.    

As an ode to cinema, Their Finest reminds us just how good a film can be. Prepare to leave the theatre in a glorious glow.

✭✭✭✭

Their Finest is currently screening at the British Film Festival.  

Richard Leathem @dickiegee