Their Finest (2016)

Representation in film matters. Cinema is about exploring and sharing everyone’s stories. When the stories are always told by and about the same people, we all lose out. Lost perspectives, lost stories, and lost new audiences. Change is happening slowly but exponentially, and we’re finally getting away from the domination of the white male gaze.

It’s fitting then, that a film about women breaking out of the roles they’ve been forced into by men was written, adapted, directed, scored and edited by women. Unfortunately, Their Finest loses interest in really exploring the journey of self-discovery of a woman from the mills of rural Wales into a propaganda film screenwriter during WWII. Instead it relegates the main character to the background, seems more interested in its male leads, and switches focus to more standard romantic comedy fare late on. Rather than venture into enlightenment into what the world can be for women who are unshackled, it defines Gemma Arterton’s Catrin by her relationships with men, not who she is inside.

In 1940, Catrin is hired to just add ‘a woman’s touch’ to the female dialogue of public information films screened between features, but her talent is noticed by scriptwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Soon they’re working together to create the most influential government-produced film yet, roping in former matinee idol Ambrose Hillard (Bill Nighy). Embelleshing a story of twin sisters that aided in the evacuation of Dunkirk, they plan to not only raise British spirits during the Blitz, but also show the Americans that they are not defeated and so in turn encourage them to join the war. Catrin’s husband thinks little of her new job, planning to send her back to Wales to escape the bombing. But her burgeoning talent and relationship with Buckley makes her determined to stay and make their picture.

Arterton continues to deliver solid performances in smaller British films like this and The Girl with all the Gifts. At first she struggles with the Welsh accent, but grows into both it and the role. But in her most emotive moments it feels like the audience isn’t really with her; we’re watching rather than feeling. This isn’t helped by the fact that we’re not really given a look inside her as a person. We don’t know what makes her who she is – she only really reacts to external stimuli. Someone who’s given more to work with is Claflin, who does arguably his best work so far as both witty propagandist and somewhat tortured writer. Meanwhile, the actor that brings the comedy to this dramedy is Nighy, working with the character that he’s perfected over the years – the gloriously oblivious braggart who floats around on a cloud of his own self-importance, but who at heart is a kind and generous soul.

Despite the film’s drift into romantic comedy, it also has some interesting things to say about truth, storytelling, filmmaking and gender politics. It’s also something of a meta meditation on movies and their power to essentially change the world. To paraphrase Claflin’s Buckley, if you’re going to take an hour and a half of someone’s life, then you’d better make it worth it. Director Lone Scherfig nods to how film can brighten people’s lives by contrasting the foggy, noir-esque lighting of bombed-out London with the technicolour reveries of the movie’s projections. Their Finest also reflects the in-film discussion around truth and what makes a dramatically satisfying movie, itself leaning on tricks that the characters propose for their film – from love triangles to unexpected tragedy.

Their Finest aims for the mix of drama and comedy of other British Nighy-starring films like Love Actually, The Boat that Rocked, and Pride, and to be fair there are genuinely funny, crowd-pleasing moments, as well as surprises that elicited a gasp from the receptive audience. But it gets lost in what it wants to be and what it wants to say. What keeps the film alive are the performances of its central trio and the fact it still manages a surprise in its third act.

Their Finest
Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy
Rating: ★★½

[This post first appeared on Filmblerg]

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