Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy
Watch Their Finest online in the UK: BBC iPlayer / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Honestly, you wait ages for a film about Dunkirk and then three all turn up at once – or four, depending on your viewpoint. Alongside Christopher Nolan’s immersive epic and Joe Wright’s Gary-Oldman-as-Churchill biopic Darkest Hour, here’s Lone Scherfig’s fictional account of the making of a propaganda movie about the heroic retreat. (If you’re counting, we see enough of the film they’re making, ‘The Nancy Starling,’ to serve as a fourth.)
Their Finest is a necessary balance to the grandness of these other visions. If Nolan wanted the audience to feel what it was like to be there, and Darkest Hour will no doubt deliver the history book version of events, Scherfig is concerned with the not insignificant matter of how the British transformed this tactical defeat into a morale-boosting triumph. It can’t compete with the other films in scale, so instead it widens the scope, delivering a delightfully mercurial piece. It’s at once a witty filmmaking satire, a period romcom and a feminist melodrama whose elegant transitions between its moods fulfils the proverbial brief of any movie: it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry.
Nolan made a huge deal about the authenticity of his film, but that referred to the technical verisimilitude of using period vehicles and practical FX. For Scherfig, it’s a matter of emotional authenticity. As novice screenwriter Catrin Cole (Arterton) dispenses with the facts in the pursuit of truth, so the film achieves a striking vision of Dunkirk using glass matte paintings, a model boat and a paddling pool.
As a film about filmmaking, it hits the mark, unafraid of caricature or cliché (Nighy is a hoot as a precious faded star recruited to play a drunk uncle), but actually quite perceptive about how and why creative decisions are made. Scherfig focuses to an unusual degree on the writing of the film – one scene manages to condense the lessons of entire screenwriting seminars into a few minutes of jokes – until we get an acute understanding of the importance of structure, and why those clichés matter to audiences.
So the love triangle in ‘The Nancy Starling’ – between a British gal, her Tommy boyfriend and the handsome Yank she rescues – is echoed in Catrin’s meet-cute with fellow writer Buckley (Claflin) and her dilemma over what to do about her husband, Ellis (Jack Huston). This knot is resolved with twists and revelations that would be ludicrous if viewed objectively, but which work in context because they inform and extend Scherfig’s themes.
The result is an immaculate layering of fact and fiction, message and mood. The film is thoroughly modern in its insouciant feminism, calling out sexism wherever it finds it, but it still works as an old-school charmer, with Arterton and Claflin’s chemistry recalling the urbane wit of the films of the period. Crucially, just when you think things are becoming too arch, Scherfig lands a genuinely emotional gut-punch that achieves exactly the kind of cinematic truth she’s been promising.
Their Finest is available on BBC iPlayer until 30th September 2019.
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