When I reference World War II and the Dunkirk evacuation in the same review, most readers are likely to assume that I’m taking about Christopher Nolan’s upcoming summer blockbuster bait rather than an understated rom-com about a plucky female screenwriter. And that’s a shame because Their Finest is a genuine crowd-pleaser with plenty of heart that had managed to fly completely under my radar before I screened it this weekend.
While technically a war film, Finest is a picture with a distinctly feminist sensibility that distinguishes it from what I can only imagine will be a gritty exercise in machismo from Mr. Nolan come July. Taken from a novel with an unquestionably superior title to that of its film adaptation (Their Finest Hour and a Half, written by British sitcom director Lissa Evans), Their Finest follows a young woman (Gemma Arterton) whose career in screenwriting begins somewhat unexpectedly when she’s brought on by the British government to polish women’s dialogue for propaganda films in London during the height of the Blitz.
She’s guided in this new job by prickly lead writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), who chauvinistically refers to the female dialogue Arterton’s Catrin Cole has been tasked with scripting as “the slop.” The expected personality clashes ensue, as does a fairly predictable love triangle involving Buckley and Cole’s marginally employed artist husband (Jack Huston), relegating the war itself to little more than a lens through which ideas of female empowerment and autonomy are examined.
At its core, Their Finest is a film about cinematic storytelling, in both practice and purpose — and movies about writing can be tricky propositions, as the act itself tends to be an endeavor characterized primarily by sedentary isolation and, therefore, an inherently challenging pursuit to depict with and visual interest. Their Finest manages to avoid the obvious pitfalls of its subject matter through some creative staging and tactfully executed montage, leaving most of the film’s dramatic conflict to the will-they-won’t-they exchanges between Buckley and Cole with the threat of the Blitz looming large over the proceedings. While many of the plot points are unquestionably dark, the film never descends into maudlin self-pity (and it helps significantly that the incomparable Bill Nighy is on hand to supply the comic relief).
Danish director Lone Scherfig seems to have abandoned the stylistic constraints of her Dogme 95 background in favor of a more classical mode, but the grasp of subtlety she displayed in films like Italian for Beginners and An Education is still fully on display here. Her evocation of the period setting is masterfully conceived on an obviously modest budget — the film never looks cheap, but Scherfig limits her sets largely to interiors that reduce the need for expensive location dressing or costly combat sequences.
This is not to say that the war takes a back seat — in fact, most of the script’s major story beats are contingent on the war as a sort of deus ex machina narrative device, propelling what would have been an otherwise unremarkable and relatively shallow love story. What Scherfig and screenwriter Gaby Chiappe accomplish is all the more noteworthy because it forgoes the broader and more self-evident conflicts available given its setting in favor of a drama on a more intimate, human scale — and in so doing, they drive home the ramifications of the war more effectively than they ever could have with massive explosions or scores of extras covered in fake blood and carrying severed limbs.
Their Finest is not just a love story, but a love letter to a specific chapter in film history that bore an indelible impact on the collective psychology of a society consumed by conflict. Rather than fixating on the grand spectacle of the war, Scherfig focuses on the role of women, not only in the war effort but also in the film industry of the period. This reductive scope results in a resonant feminist message just as timely and relevant today as it would have been eight decades ago, if not more so. By refusing to allow their female characters to be defined by their relationships to men, both in the film itself and the mise en abyme production within it, Scherfig and Chiappe have accomplished a feat many filmmakers set out to achieve but few actually attain. It may not be the best film about World War II ever made, but it’s certainly the finest feminist statement on the significance of storytelling that I’ve come across in recent memory. Rated R for some language and a scene of sexuality. Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark and Fine Arts Theatre.