Balancing wit and romance against a life-or-death drama can be a tricky balance. “Their Finest” stumbles a little around the middle, but recovers well enough to produce a satisfying film.
“Their Finest” is set in London during the Blitz. The United States is still a year away from entering World War II, and the British Ministry of Information is working hard to produce films that will keep the home fires burning and, if possible, rally extra support from overseas.
Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is a brand new hire in the screenwriting department, recruited to write the women’s dialogue, or, as head writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) puts it, “the slop.” She came to London from Wales, and has been selling her relationship with a struggling painter named Ellis (Jack Huston) as a bona fide marriage, though they’ve never actually tied the knot.
Catrin’s first major project is a “based on a true story” piece about two British women who assist in the rescue at Dunkirk. After she interviews the women, Catrin is shocked to see Buckley and company tear the original story to shreds and reconstruct it in a more screen-worthy configuration.
“Film,” justifies Buckley, is “real life with the boring bits cut out.”
One of the script’s supporting roles goes to an in-denial has-been named Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy). He’s a walking parody of the stuffy, self-important actor stereotype, and just one of many signals that “Their Finest” is a tribute to the unappreciated writers behind all the silver screen glitz and glamour.
“Their Finest” is also a tribute to the female gender, as Catrin nobly continues to impress and fight her way through the limitations of her position to become the staff MVP. Her earnings also pay the rent for Ellis, who eventually proves that he really isn’t husband material.
There’s plenty of understated British wit — and industry insider nods — to go around, and once Catrin and Ellis’ relationship wavers, an unexpected romantic option presents itself. But rather than settle for a simple romantic comedy, director Lone Scherfig juxtaposes her film’s lighter material against the harsh realities of living in a war zone.
It might be a stretch to call “Their Finest” a war movie, at least in the “Saving Private Ryan” sense — or even the “Dunkirk” sense, considering the upcoming Christopher Nolan piece covering the same subject matter as Catrin’s fictional script. But “Their Finest” never quite lets the audience lose sight of the context of its story.
Strangely, it isn’t this particular brand of life and death that is responsible for “Their Finest’s” biggest misstep, which happens late enough in the film to constitute a major spoiler here. But even after that, Scherfig and company recover sufficiently to end the film on a positive note. We even get to see bits of the fictional film, which are campy enough to make you want to see the whole thing.
Arterton makes for a strong and sympathetic lead who colors her delicate femininity with a growing courage, and Claflin is fun to watch in a role that is considerably removed from Finnick Odair of the Hunger Games films. Best of all, though, is Nighy, who hits all of his notes perfectly, not quite stealing every scene, but certainly elevating them.
Unfortunately, “Their Finest” includes just enough profanity — four uses of the F-word, to be precise — and fleeting nudity to turn what should have been a PG film into an R. Aside from the aforementioned plot stumble, that’s really the only downside of this thoughtful and enjoyable little showcase of British wit.
“Their Finest” is rated R for some language and a scene of sexuality; running time: 117 minutes.