While there are no shortage of Word War II period pieces, few tackle the issues of the home front. Even fewer still adopt a feminist stance during this era. A little independent feature, Their Finest saw minimal fanfare in it’s small United States and European release. The movie spent six months on the festival circuit, before finally hitting theaters in April 2017. However, Their Finest approaches the war genre from a unique point-of-view. Thus, the movie shows audiences (especially those in the United States) an entirely different side of World War II.
Their Finest follows secretary Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton). Relatively new to London, it seems she possesses quite the flair for writing copy. She quickly finds herself recruited to join the Ministry of Information. In her daily duties, she polishes the female dialogue (called “slop”) in the wartime propaganda pictures.
Cole quickly gains a foothold inside the scriptwriting department. Together with fellow writer Tom Buckley (Sam Clafin), they assume writing duties on a new film about the recent British defeat at Dunkirk. During production, Catrin tackles her personal issues with her significant other Ellis Cole (Jack Huston), as well as a budding relationship with Buckley. There are also professional battles with difficult actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy). All the while, no one can escape the hardships and dangers of the war waging around them.
Lissa Evan’s book, Their Finest Hour and a Half is the inspiration for Their Finest. Writer Gaby Chiappe penned the script. Lone Scherfig directed the period piece. Together, they craft a stirring depiction of World War II era London. From the bomb shelters, to the air raids and the general sense of dread, they show how people across Europe felt the war. It wasn’t simply relegated to the soldiers on the battlefield.
As a whole, a main strength of the film comes from the all-around stellar performances by it’s cast. As the temperamental Hilliard, Nighy is an absolute standout. With each role, he shows why he is a cinematic gem who needs an Oscar sooner rather than later. Actress Rachael Stirling also shines as secretary and production coordinator Phyl Moore. The actress is a fixture on British television, showing incredible versatility across a number of genres. However, her film roles have been largely few and far between. She brings a winking intelligence to the character of Phyl, and establishes herself brightly in a sea of supporting characters.
At the same time, Gemma Arterton brings a well-crafted, though understated note to the complex Catrin. A woman in a man’s world, she openly struggles against the restrictions of society around her. However, a part of her is desperate to fit in, and not rock the boat. In her relatable performance, Arterton shows why she continues to be a growing talent in European cinema.
Together with Arterton, the talented creative team craft an unflinchingly feminist tone in the period piece. The narrative pulls no punches as to the complicated position of women during the second world war. Early in the film, Catrin interviews for her job with Ministry of Information head Roger Swain (Richard E. Grant). He looks her over: “Ministry starting (pay) is 3 pounds 10, but we can’t pay you the same as the blokes, so how does 2 pounds sound?”. Later in the movie, Phyl is given quite an insightful line which accurately describes gender relations during the WWII era, “A lot of men are scared we won’t go back in our boxes when this is all over”.
Interestingly, the development of the male characters is a definite topic for discussion as well. Their Finest resists the potential problem of weak male characters in the narrative. Rather, in the hands of the talented cast, there is a shroud of wounded masculinity which hangs over the story. Furthermore, this is an important element, especially when studying this period in world history.
Each of these men, all of whom remain in London while the war rages across the English Channel, struggle with their feelings. Huston and Clafin both inject an exhausted tension into their performance. As Ellis, Huston zeros in on the man’s insecurity. Wounded during “The Spanish War”, Catrin says early on that he was deemed unfit for military service. Furthermore, Ellis struggles under the weight of his inability to provide a comfortable living for Catrin without her having to work. As such, he can’t meet the societal expectations for a husband during this period, leaving him (literally and figuratively) wounded and confused.
Meanwhile, in his portrayal of Buckley, Clafin conveys a similar sense of vulnerability. Throughout the film, his background remains more of a mystery. However, it is made clear that his father fought in WWI. Later in the film, Tom tells Catrin how he escaped his father by going to the pub. Through not only his character, but across the narrative, the film makes a powerful argument that the effects of war don’t stop after a soldier leaves the battlefield
Now a discussion of a fairly substantial spoiler… Discussion begins after the picture.
The film takes a sharp (and dark) turn in the third act. When Tom and Catrin find themselves finally happy, Catrin can only watch as the man she loves is crushed under a falling light rig. The moment is decidedly jarring and absolutely heartbreaking. Mere seconds earlier, the characters giddily kissed on the film set. However, with time to process the sharp plot twist, it proves to be a smart and calculated decision by the creative team.
The death ultimately swings the film away from the romantic direction it spends much of the second act building towards. However, a happy conclusion of this relationship storyline would have resulted in marriage, and Catrin stepping away from her writing job. When he dies, Buckley is on his way to work with an insistent Hilliard in Catrin’s place. Tom smirks, telling Catrin that Hilliard would keep her too busy and distracted when Tom wants her… attention. While his motives are sweet, even in this simple gesture, he’s forcing her into the background, and thus taking away her voice. Catrin is meant for a different ending than matrimony. In Tom’s abrupt death, the filmmakers avoid the movie falling into a potentially cliched ending, and also protect the prevailing feminist message in the narrative.
Ultimately, Their Finest’s run in theaters will likely be a short one. With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 perched on the precipice of a wide release this weekend, screens will unfortunately be in short supply. Their Finest is definitely worth a viewing for fans of period pieces, and those with an interest in British cinema. While the film is gorgeous on the big screen, it would make a solid rental or streaming choice as well.