Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest is old-fashioned filmmaking and storytelling in the best sense of the word.
The behind-the-scenes look at British moviemaking during WWII centers on the Ministry of Information’s filmmaking division doing its part to help the war effort in 1940 London and serves as a reinforcement of certain established performers’ talents and a long-overdue coming out party for others.
Effortlessly carrying the film as secretary-turned-writer Catrin Cole, Gemma Arterton makes one wonder why she’s not given more lead roles. Married to Ellis (Jack Huston), a struggling painter whose injury from the Spanish War limits his current resistance efforts to that of an air warden, she’s hired by department supervisor Roger Swain (Richard E. Grant, good for his usual quota of hilarious reactionary shots) and put to work searching for the next inspirational fact-based tale with the potential to double as rousing cinematic entertainment.
Though perfectly pleasant in the underrated 2016 rom-com Me Before You, Sam Claflin more fully utilizes his gifts as curmudgeonly head scriptwriter Tom Buckley, including a winning rapport with Arterton that only improves with time. Adapting Lissa Evans’s novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, Gaby Chiappe grows their relationship at a natural pace, spurring them on with the well-put conundrum of whether embellishments should be made for the sake of a good story.
That debate arises as word reaches them of twin sisters Lily and Rose Starling (Francesca and Lily Knight) taking the family boat to evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk, a recent and mostly true tale that nonetheless gets the as-yet-written script approved.
Whether on location in Devon or back in a London studio, Scherfig (An Education) maintains the balance of difficult decisions behind the camera and often comedic payoff in front of it, much of both coming courtesy of aging actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy).
And though Jake Lacy’s presence is a bummer, humor at his expense mostly validates his inclusion as Carl Lundbeck, an American RAF pilot of Norwegian ancestry whose casting the filmmakers’ potential allies across the pond strongly suggest to help drum up support for the war effort in the States. Like Lacy himself, Carl simply cannot act, but the cast and crew develop various clever workarounds to make his participation possible without completely derailing the production.
So much happens during the Devon shoot that the prospect of three more weeks on a studio set feels like a lot for Their Finest to tackle, but the conflicts still in need of resolution and the ways they play out easily justify the time spent on them.
In the end, it’s not a question of whether the Dunkirk film will be finished, but who’ll still be around at the end and in what condition. As such, both in spite of the familiarity with the material and thanks to the opportunity to have been there as it was conceived, revised and enacted, it’s difficult not to be moved during an emotional screening of the final product in a crowded London theater and the well-earned coda that follows.
Grade: A-minus. Rated R. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre
**What Next? and Dinner Party Fodder for Their Finest: bonus insight and follow-up film suggestions, available exclusively to patrons.**
(Photo by Nicola Dove/STX Entertainment)