The crown jewel of the BFI’s London Film Festival was undoubtedly Their Finest which boasts an impressive cast including Gemma Arterton, heart-throb of the moment Sam Claflin (Me Before You) and Bill Nighy who is at his comedic peak as Ambrose Hilliard, a proud, ego-wounded actor, past his glory days.
The film centres around Catrin Cole, (Gemma Arterton) a beguiling, softly-spoken Welsh writer, who gets enlisted to help add “a feminine touch” to the process of writing a pro-war propaganda movie to help boost the morale of the British public. She meets fellow acerbic scriptwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin) whose initial slightly callous, highly strung front gradually softens as they are placed under immense pressure to produce a script quickly. After scouting for ideas, Catlin stumbles across twin sisters that share their IQ between them and are played with impressive vacuity. The sisters claimed to have tried to sail the English Channel in their father’s small boat, disobeying their abusive, alcoholic father all in the name of love for a soldier fighting at Dunkirk. If Catrin is suspicious of the plausibility of their story, she doesn’t show it and sells the idea to her team of fellow scriptwriters.
The film gets the green light from the film production company and Catrin experiences her first inevitable downside of success – the impact on her relationship with dashing painter husband, a man with plenty of charisma but lacking in the financial stakes. The timeless dilemma of putting a career first and then being judged as selfish, is one that many people will identify with and that seems just as relevant today. A cleverly understated scene shows him attempting understanding at her need to stay in London, but with a frisson of tension that casts a shadow over her relationship.
Just as filming is about to begin, the story is unearthed as grossly elaborated and the financiers declare the film and the script Catrin has spent weeks on as fit for the scrap-heap. In order to stop her dreams from being dashed Buckley steps in and deftly persuades the producers to still go ahead as the spirit of the twins in the story remains the same.
However another obstacle appears to thwart their dreams of producing a brilliant movie in the form of their chosen lead. Unbeknown to the writers, the film producers had to include a famous American actor in order to encourage Americans to support the war, unfortunately he proves to be so bad it’s hilarious. The actor who plays him has to be praised for being a talented actor who can comically play an actor who can’t act convincingly. Cue more comedy as Catrin tries to lull highly strung, perpetually wounded actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), still affronted at being offered the small part of an old drunk with minimal lines. Realising that he is their only chance, she panders to him by rewriting the script to include more of his character and in return he agrees to give the American actor lessons. Bill Nighy uses his comedic ability to it’s fullest potential as he steals every scene, producing the biggest laughs from the audience.
The script is flawless in seaming together different genres of tragedy, romance and humour and interweaving effortlessly between the three without jarring. First time screenwriter Gabe Chiappe has made an impressive debut adapting Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, displaying an attuned understanding of women’s emerging opportunities in the work place and a sharp wit with the type of lines that actors wait their whole lives to say. From ‘actors only remember you if you review them or have intercourse with them or both simultaneously,’ to a powerful, tear-inducing scene near the end where Nighy advises not ‘to give death dominion over life.’
As the film centres on the drive and aspirations of a female writer trying to build a scriptwriting career whilst supporting her partner, which would be impressive now, the film is a forward-thinking feminist one. However due to the skill of the writer any feminist messages are hidden beneath the humour and love story that develops between Catrin and Buckley. It is also refreshing to see a strong, intelligent female lead being played with a beguiling, introverted shyness as opposed to the usual cliché of a feminist that takes on the stereotypical characteristics of men. Their Finest is a powerful story that hits all the right notes to go down as a romantic classic to move the stoniest heart.
Dir: Lone Scherfig
Scr: Gaby Chiappe
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy
Prd: Stephen Woolley, Amanda Posey
DOP: Sebastian Blenkov
Music: Rachel Portman
Run time: 115 minutes