Their Finest, a BBC Films movie all about uplifting a nation’s spirits, has been adapted by Gaby Chiappe from a 2009 novel by Lissa Evans.
The film both charmed and disarmed, ensuring I became fond of what is essentially an old fashioned movie proving the power of visual storytelling to inspire us all and to keep hope alive.
It highlights how being a writer is a quiet profession, one just right for an introvert, where you can spend hours and hours alone or in collaboration, but only if it’s with the right people.
The story produced in time of war is all about sharing what is at the core of the writer’s being by creating characters that live through life threatening situations, heightening the dramatic or comedic aspects of their journey and for a good cause.
Don’t read any more if you don’t want any spoilers.
Their Finest is a dramedy, one that celebrates a stirring and sorrowful moment in screen storytelling told sweetly by a talented scriptwriting trio Gemma Arterton (Catrina Cole) and the dashing Sam Claflin (Tom Buckley) with their prickly sidekick Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter).
As an added bonus it gives us one of my fav actors of my lifetime Bill Nighy as the ageing thespian Ambrose Hilliard, a man we can continue to adore and admire.
Quietly assertive, copywriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) in her daily life during the year 1940 is surrounded by drama and danger as she bashes out words on her trusty portable typewriter.
The Britain she knows and loves is at war with Germany and there are times she finds herself sheltering from the bombs raining down in the local tube station, along with everyone else on their way to and from work, as they all just endeavour to do their best work and help the war effort and survive.
Catrin’s day job has just got interesting. Applying for a new position with the Ministry for Information, she suddenly finds herself working for a new boss (Richard E Grant) who tells her imperiously “Obviously we can’t pay you as much as the chaps”. She doesn’t really mind, it’s all so very exciting.
He is head of the Government Film Division, which is making propaganda short movies to show at the weekend cinema to help keep the population informed. In the main they are deadly boring and hardly likely to inspire anyone or to give them hope but all that’s about to change as the powers decide to up the ante.
Catrin Cole finds herself suddenly working in extremely close quarters with male co-writers Tom Buckley and Raymond Parfitt in an office for one, cramped for three, where they have been instructed to bring about ‘authenticity with optimism’. She is to provide what they call the ‘slop’, the woman’s dialogue for a story. But first they must find their feet as a team.
Catrin is sent into the country to research a true story from the evacuation of Dunkirk when 338,226 soldiers were rescued from a beach along the French coast in an operation that started on May 26 and ended on June 4. As the troops had to be taken off directly from the beaches, it was a slow and difficult process.
By the end of the evacuation 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops were saved, rescued by a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 boats some naval, others civilian vessels, which travelled the channel in precarious and dangerous conditions to assist those in need. Catrin has to make sure the story reported in the papers is true and find out details they can use in a script.
She meets Rose and Lily Starling who are delightfully daffy twin sisters (Lily and Francesca Knight), living very mundane lives on the coast of England. However when the call went out they responded galantly, piloting their drunken father’s small boat through the dangerous waters of the English Channel.
When Catrin interviews them both she discovers they never really made it to the shore because their engine faltered short of the beach. However, the two sisters are so inspiring in relating the tale to her she believes they would provide a wonderful centrepiece for their story. She convinces her co-writers and the indignant producers she is right.
The making of the movie takes shape in the office; transposes to being ‘live’ on location in Devon and then back into the studio in London.
During all this time Catrin finds out slowly she has her true match in Tom Buckley who treats her as an equal. This must have felt very refreshing after living with Ellis (Jack Huston) a painter whose vision of the world around him is revealed in the gloomy dark brutalist scenes he records on his canvas. He lives his life at a surface level and in love with himself.
A misogynist, he dismisses any contribution Catrin makes, despite her wages keeping them housed, allowing him to do exactly what he pleases. This includes bringing home a girl to share his bed while his so-called ‘wife’ is away, caught out when she arrives home unexpectedly.
For Catrin confronting his behaviour when she is not around is an enlightening wake up call. It’s a time when reality becomes expressly the realm of power, and she packs her bag and leaves him far behind.
Everyone else’s performances are punctuated and nuanced gloriously by Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard who sparkles, is haughty, full of vanity and pride, a softy of a man really, one full of kindness who can do self-deprecating if he tries.
His long time friend and agent from Poland Sammy Smith (Eddie Marsan) offer him career advice, until he is killed during an air raid. This is when his sister Sophie (Helen McCrory) takes over, injecting great zest into her and Ambrose’s fun and flirtatious scenes together.
The look on his face as Nighy reads the description of his character in the movie is entirely beguiling, as he says ‘a shipwreck of a man; 60s, looks older’ – it is all too delicious.
His colleague actor Jeremy Irons pops up too in a self-satirizing cameo, one that’s truly scrumptious. One of Nighy’s best moments come when Catrin puts him forward to the producers as the man to coach the ‘brave American’ Carl Lundbeck (Jack Lacy) who needs a lot of help.
His character Brannigan has to be inserted into the story as an observer of history. There were no Americans at Dunkirk, but as part of the aim of the movie they are making is to encourage the US to come on board as allies, then it’s a must do situation and the writers must bring him to life.
How this whole story The Nancy Starling, named for the boat the girls piloted comes together, and how the crew and ensemble cast all bond together so well while on location, is wonderfully presented. We are also given a joyous insight into how convincing ‘screen effects’ were made prior to the arrival of computerised technology.
It’s hard not to feel the increasing depth of their emotion as Tom and Catrin’s fondness for each other grows albeit with quiet restraint. Suddenly through tragedy she is forced to let down her guard down and allow her feelings their freedom, as she fully embraces her career options into the future.
The film’s music is a backdrop to the magic of this handcrafted movie that looks like it was made on a shoestring budget as it would in wartime, seen through a lens that nuances nostalgia in full glorious colour. The sight of the twins Rose and Lily at sea wearing lovely lace dresses is a sight to behold.
Their Finest is a masterwork of understatement. It is packed with sentiment as an undercurrent and showcases the talent of its ensemble of classy actors. A delicious dramedy mix, it is all quite absorbing and entirely satisfying although its subtlety will more than likely be entirely lost on the young who are used to lots of action! It is in the tradition of those fine movies produced about World War II, that talk about and applaud restraint in every aspect o life.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
Director: Lone Scherfig
Writers: Gaby Chiappe (screenplay), Lissa Evans (novel)
Genre Comedy Drama Romance