1 Hr., 57 Mins.
Their Finest March 20, 2018
n Their Finest (2017), a rousing period dramedy, Gemma Arterton gives the sort of performance that makes you sit up and pay attention. And not because it’s Oscar baiting or because it speaks to Arterton’s versatility as an actress. It’s the kind of quiet, expressive characterization that only the most gifted of actors can pull off, reliant on facial and bodily movement to convey one’s emotional or psychological state.
Arterton is hardly a newcomer – she saw her breakthrough back in 2008 as a Bond girl named Strawberry Fields in Quantum of Solace. Yet I’m pressed to
think of a feature in which her talents are as emphasized as they are in this particular film. She’s so good in Their Finest, you start thinking this emotionally articulate brunette could be a major star if she delivered a handful of performances as vivid as this one back to back.
In the film, she is Catrin, a 20-something-year-old Londoner hunting for a job. The year is 1940, and most of the world has been rocked by World War II; her native Britain is especially feeling the effects of the fateful Dunkirk battle, which we’re led to believe happened just a few months prior to the feature's opening.
Catrin’s never really held any sort of steady position before, but the situation is dire: her artist husband Ellis (John Huston) is unable to secure any sort of exhibition, and has been exempted from the draft as a result of a leg injury.
Catrin’s being on the job market doesn’t last long, though. Just as Their Finest is opening, she is summoned by the Ministry of Information, where she is hired to write scripts for short informational films meant to play before the previews at local matinees. Catrin immediately proves herself perfectly capable in the position: her products are effective and of higher quality than most of the works put forth by her peers, and as such is she quickly treated as something of a master in her field.
Soon, she, along with screenwriters Tom (Sam Claflin, dashing albeit bookish) and Raymond (Paul Ritter), are tasked with writing the script for “The Nancy Starling,” a morale-boosting film about a pair of twin sisters who use their father’s boat to take part in the Dunkirk evacuation. She clashes with the movie’s star, the overly confident Ambrose (Bill Nighy). But if anything, the biggest dilemma presented throughout production is the one dispensed by Tom: though she and her fellow scriptwriter butt heads at first, they eventually come to develop a touching friendship, which then blossoms into romantic interest.
You could see Their Finest being made around the time it’s set, just maybe without the sharp, painfully real bursts of violence. We imagine it lensed in black and white, with American stars doing the dirty work. Perhaps Irene Dunne would be Catrin, with Cary Grant as Tom, John Garfield as Ellis, and John Barrymore as Ambrose. I’m sure that’s what the film’s writer and director, Lone Scherfig, intended: to make something of an old-fashioned trifle with enough spunk and heart to earn comparisons to old Hollywood without overdoing nostalgia.
It succeeds in this regard, and that Golden Age-reminiscence is one of the things I like best about it. Their Finest recalls fine WWII pictures like Mrs. Miniver (1942) and From Here to Eternity (1953), which were sentimental, rosy, and genuinely moving without forgetting to sprinkle in a couple dashes of humor here and there. Also comparable are the way these films so wonderfully develop the interpersonal relationships between the characters. In Mrs. Miniver, familial bonds felt real, and in From Here to Eternity, friendships and romances rang true. This is no different in Their Finest. The connection between Tom and Catrin is stirring, as are the depicted professional relationships, which have an underlying feeling of camaraderie.
I do wish the movie had a bit more pluck, and I wish there were a greater stressing of how much of a maestro of a woman filmmaker Catrin is rather than on her love life. But what we have here is so lovely that it perhaps doesn’t matter if Scherfig has a tendency to pick the tender over the spunky. This is a rubicund, effortlessly charismatic crowd-pleaser just as affecting as the film being made within the film. Come for Arterton’s excellent performance, stay for the laughs and the lump that will eventually develop in your throat. B