Authenticity, optimism, and a dog.
As the Blitz raged and British soldiers continued to pour into Europe to try and push the Germans back, those left at home to take cover during air raids and do their part in factories still needed something to keep morale high when it all looked so futile. One such avenue was the movies currently run out of the Ministry of Information as the government sought to ensure the general public experienced only stories that provided hope. Being that you can only make so many farces to conjure laughter before they begin to seem as fruitless as the harsh reality surrounding them, Roger Swain (Richard E. Grant) enlists famed producer Gabriel Baker (Henry Goodman) to deliver him a film that will inspire with laughter and tears.
He taps screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) for the job, himself a comedic success with writing partner Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter). In order to provide Swain something different, however, they needed a different perspective. So Buckley puts a call out to the female writer of a comic he read and enjoyed. He realizes women are a majority of theatergoers now that their husbands and sons are off to the mainland, so why not hire a woman to speak for them and to them on this quest to brighten spirits? His first assignment for Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is to interview a pair of twins named Rose and Lily, subjects of a news article that described their harrowing adventure to Dunkirk to rescue soldiers with their father’s fishing boat.
Adapted from Lissa Evans‘ novel by Gaby Chiappe, Lone Scherfig‘s Their Finest portrays life in this nightmarish time by pitting Catrin’s precarious situation at home against her newfound voice away. There’s a wonderful line spoken by Swain’s assistant Phyl Moore (Rachael Stirling) wherein she tells this newcomer to the film world that many of the men they’re dealing with expect them to go back in their boxes after the war ends—that women will gratefully and willingly return to their disrespected roles of domesticity despite the hard work and sacrifices they made to the cause. This isn’t therefore just a straight romantic comedy creating dual love triangles (one in the movie Catrin helps write and her actual life), but also an important look at the changing gendered tide.
We’re watching as Catrin discovers the confidence that was always within her. She seeks out employment to pay the rent while her husband (Jack Huston‘s Ellis Cole) continues his dream of becoming a successful painter (a Spanish War wound has made it so he can’t fight the Nazis). She assumes this job is secretarial in nature until Buckley explains how that couldn’t be further from the truth. By being given this authority to keep dialogue and events resonant for the women viewers the Ministry of Information is targeting, Catrin erases the meekly quiet wallflower she once was to become the artist this opportunity was allowing her to embrace. And rather than quit when the men who bestowed the position upon her forget, she shows why she deserves it.
And along with this evolution of character is the comedy of errors that was creating a successful movie despite so many cooks throwing in two-cents. Not only was Buckley et al. dealing with Swain, they had the Ministry of War (led by Jeremy Irons) dictating terms to appeal to the would-be Allied nation of the United States too. We witness the sparring sessions between Tom and Catrin about who the hero should be (the twin women who sailed to France or the boyfriend they rescue); enjoy the vainly egotistical ramblings of an aging actor (Bill Nighy‘s scene-stealing Ambrose Hilliard) who must be handled with kid gloves so as not to go off-the-rails; and laugh hysterically when a non-acting American is forced into their cast (Jake Lacy‘s Carl Lundbeck).
It’s all rather delightful, especially once cast and crew congeal into a singular family in pursuit of a patriotic goal. This is key since the filmmakers never sanitize the abject terror of their story’s setting whether it’s near-miss bombings, the death of loved ones, or the necessary debates about when a lie is a lie as opposed to an embellishment of facts with purpose. Tragedy strikes more often than not to ensure the characters realize how delicate a balance life is and how important it is to make decisions for one’s own happiness rather than another’s. It’s so easy to feel guilty about what you think you could have done differently that it shows true courage and strength to accept every closed door leads to one that’s open.
But while this somber tone does wonderfully contrast the lighter romantic comedy angle on the surface of Catrin’s journey towards individuality, there are a couple moments that prove too much. Act Three possesses one sequence rife with nightmare that arrives without warning to match the growing uncertainty and danger facing the British citizens caught in the wake of never-ending bombings. Unfortunately, though, the way it happens subverts so much of what made Catrin’s arc authentic. Because Chiappe and Evans work tirelessly to make us think her love triangle mimics the one in the movie around Rose, their intentional avoidance of it for so long is absolute perfection. And while I understand their choice to move it even further away, I can’t quite forgive the almost sadistically cruel result.
A hero is suddenly born out of nowhere, a hero of fate helping Catrin along as though her success and luck can’t simply be hers alone. Perhaps I’m reading too far into it, but the final death takes away the sense of agency that made her such a memorably important character. The added emotion and crisis of faith it introduces (which Arterton knocks out of the park like the rest of the role) doesn’t offset the damage such a jarring incident provides so late in the game. The denouement proves incongruously manipulative when everything before felt breezy, poignant, and real. I get that life isn’t like the movies and that’s why we watch them, but this message was there regardless of the on-the-nose ending that drove it home.
courtesy of Transmission Films