Their Finest (Lone Scherfig, 2016) United Kingdom

Reviewed by Gustav Arndal. Viewed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival

The challenge of making a period drama is the challenge of verisimilitude. You must strike a balance between historical accuracy, out of respect for the people who lived through the events you’re depicting, and entertainment, which is the reason these movies are made in the first place. Some films can count their accuracy among their strengths as powerful art pieces, and many of those have been hailed and honored as the finest cinema has to offer. Their Finest, a Lone Scherfig film brought to us by BBC can not count itself among them.

The story centers around Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a woman hired by the British government to write propaganda films during World War II. As she researches and writes the studio’s big feature film, she becomes friends with coworker Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and their friendship starts growing more intimate. They’re joined by an ensemble cast of producers, actors and other writers, most notably Ambrose Hillard, an aging actor long past his glory days played by the great Bill Nighy.

This movie wears its intentions on its sleeve: it aims to not just be a period piece, but a metatextual and subversive one. Characters discuss and debate the value of storytelling in tough times, and the film-within-the-film comes to reflect the relationship of Catrin and Tom as they struggle to write a conclusion to the movie’s love story.

This ambition turns out to be one of the movie’s biggest flaws.

The film’s main themes are the empowerment of women through representation and the removal of reality from film needed to please and audience. We’re meant to look at Their Finest and say “oh, this movie is depicting strong female characters,” and “oh, this movie doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of London in the 40’s.” The problem is that the movie is a lot weaker on these fronts than the movie itself seems to realize.

Even setting aside the problematic idea of presenting government propagandists as heroes of the war, there are some clear narrative holes..

First, our protagonist. She is an archetype I have come to despise – the period piece Mary Sue. A “Mary Sue” is a main character with no flaws, whom the audience projects themselves unto, who never makes mistakes, is greatly talented, and whom every character either immediately likes or gradually comes to like. In a period piece, this character is overly progressive for their time and always on “the right side of history.” If they’d written this character in Victorian England, she would hate wearing corsets but also look stunning in them. Catrin Cole is a prime example, never doing anything wrong, really talented at her job, and feminist with a capital F.  But her flawlessness make her hard to relate to. and this is compounded by the lack of introduction most of these characters get.

None of this is Gemma Arterton’s fault, mind you. The movie has a fantastic cast who give it their all, as is expected of big budget period drama. We’re just not properly introduced to them before the movie rushes to the hardship, so it’s hard to get invested in their struggles. Which is a shame, because the cast goes all in with the romanticism and big emotions. Bill Nighy is especially a delight, but it’s basically just Bill Nighy being Bill Nighy, and let’s be honest, that’s never not entertaining.

The movie is at its best when it embraces its genre. When it gives the characters time to breathe, lets us into the rose-tinted world of 1940s London and just lets us take it all in. The cast playing piano at the wrap party, confessions of love, montages of screenwriting and so on. But the movie wants to be bigger than it is.

The screenwriters in this movie often lament that they have to “remove the reality” of their story to placate to an audience instead of getting at truth. But this film commits exactly that crime, as most period dramas do. This isn’t the gritty reality of World War II, this is a period drama. Everything from the rubble to the fingernails is polished and handpicked, everyone is handsome and wearing make-up and elaborate costumes, and the story is brimming with hopefulness. A few out-of-nowhere deaths don’t “subvert” this tone in a big enough way.

And again, it’s such a shame. These actors are great, and the costume and art departments have done an excellent job of constructing this romantic vision. The film-within-a-film is especially charming, and the bits we see makes it look like a genuine gem of 40s cinema. The sad reality is that the fake movie is probably a more coherent and gripping story than this.

If I catch my mother lying on the couch after catching this on TV one Saturday evening, I won’t mind joining her, if only to see Nighy’s performance. But this movie seems to have higher ambitions than that, which it ultimately comes short of.

[image taken from imdb]

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