There are certain types of films that are known as Oscar bait for a reason. All of the elements within them seem designed to attract the attention of Oscar voters, be it due to setting, theme or focus on the film industry and Their Finest ticks all of the boxes for a film to be considered Oscar bait. However, being Oscar bait does not prevent a film from being bad, if there is a good combination of writer, director and cast, then you can get an effective, charming film from Oscar bait and Their Finest easily fits into this category.
The film takes place in 1940, during the Blitz and following the Dunkirk evacuation, with Catrin Cole, who gets hired by the Ministry of Information to write the dialogue for women for public information films. She is later sent to research a story about two women who took their dad’s boat to Dunkirk to help rescue the soldiers, in order to make their story into a morale boosting film. Now the story of the film focuses on the idea of film as a tool to help people during times of difficulty. Both behind the scenes and on the screen, the characters use cinema as an escape from the horrors of the war around them, allowing them to have a few brief moments of morale. This film also shows the power cinema can have to encourage people to act, with the film the characters are making being ordered to include an American star by the Ministry of War to gain American support. Now, I’m not that familiar with the film landscape in Britain during World War 2, other people with more knowledge on the subject are welcome to explain the context, but there are some parallels I saw in terms of the cinematography for the film within a film, mainly there being some similarities to the films of Powell and Pressburger. There are also some brilliantly handled elements regarding the way women are presented at the time, partly in film through the insistence that, even though the story the characters are working from is about two women, the heroes are men, but also through the way Catrin is presented. Throughout the film, Catrin has to work at least twice as hard as her male colleagues to even get her foot in the door, being dismissed as writing ‘slop’ for focusing on dialogue for women, having her initial advice ignored and dismissed and even her career aspirations dismissed by her husband, who sees his masculinity threatened by Catrin’s increasing success. It’s with Catrin that the film sees its greatest success.
This success is aided by a stellar cast. Gemma Arterton is excellent as Catrin, giving one of her best performances. She shows the talent Catrin has as a writer and what a severe disservice is being done to her by denying her her work on the script (as she has to go uncredited). Arterton also does great work showing how into the script she is getting and her desire to give women more credit than the rest of the characters desire. There are also some more affecting scenes from Arterton as she deals with the Blitz, mainly in a scene where she just barely misses being a victim of a bombing, the way Arterton plays that scene being excellently handled. Sam Claflin meanwhile gives a solid performance as Buckley, another writer on the film, showing the right level of condescension towards Catrin needed for his character arc to work, and he does get some charming moments with Arterton. Jack Huston as Ellis, Catrin’s husband, also does strong work, showing how Ellis is initially supporting of Catrin until his damaged pride and masculinity takes over and he becomes incredibly condescending towards Catrin. Solid work is also seen from Eddie Marsan (who unfortunately isn’t in the film long enough), Helen McCrory, who always excels playing characters who don’t take shit from anyone, Richard E Grant and Jeremy Irons. There’s also a strong comic performance from Jake Lacey as Carl Lundbeck, the American actor hired, mainly because it takes great skill to effectively convey giving a bad performance. The scene stealer though is, unquestionably, Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard, one of the actors in the film the characters are making. This is the quintessential Bill Nighy performance, filled with great sardonic wit playing an incredibly egocentric actor, with Nighy giving some of his best eyebrow work (if you’re familiar with Bill Nighy you know what I mean) and deadpan delivery, alongside having some touching moments in his scenes with Arterton, Marsan and McCrory.
On a technical level, Their Finest continues the strong trends of British films focused on World War 2. The recreation of London during the Blitz is excellent, in particular the bombed out streets, whilst the costume design further adds to the period. What really works though are the depictions of filmmaking techniques from the 1940s, with the use of paintings on glass to recreate the landing craft at Dunkirk and the mix of in studio and on location filming. The use of colour in the film within the film further adds to the recreation of the time, going back to my point of similarities with Powell and Pressburger, with the colour in these scenes being very reminiscent of A Matter of Life and Death.
Overall, Their Finest is an effective, charming film about the role of women in the film industry during World War 2. Whilst this is a quintessential Oscar bait film, the way it’s executed, by a talented cast, and continues the trend of strong work directed by Lone Scherfig and makes for a great debut film script for Gaby Chiappe after doing solid work on TV for years.
My Rating: 4/5