Wednesday 27 December 2017
UK 2017 Directed by Lone Scherfig
Lionsgate Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Mild spoilers
Their Finest is a movie I missed when it was released into cinemas earlier in the year due, mostly, to an overabundance of product competing for my attention at the cinema (to a certain extent). I wasn’t overstruck on seeing the movie anyway but I knew, judging from the trailer, that it would be one my mum would want to see at some point so it was one of the movies I bought her for Christmas this year, although I wasn’t expecting to have to watch it myself. However, it was plonked on this Boxing Day and so I finally got to see the film after all. Which meant, frankly, that for the last twenty minutes of the movie I was a blubbery, tear stained mess in front of my parents. Which is perhaps something best avoided, to be honest.
Based on the novel Their Finest Hour And A Half by Lissa Evans, Lone Scherfig’s film follows a few months in the life of main protagonist Catrin Cole, played by actress extraordinaire Gemma Arterton, as she is based in London during the Second World War. In dire need of money, a newspaper strip she had to write due to a lack of writing staff in the newspaper she works for catches the eye of one of a number of screenwriters working on films for the Ministry of Propaganda (I think) and she is hired into a male dominant environment to adapt and write the screenplay of the ‘true’ story of a pair of twin sisters who drove their ship to Dunkirk to bring back stranded soldiers.
While she is working for the Ministry’s film division she becomes a shining beacon of her craft, gets her heart broken twice, saves the day endless times with her knack for fashioning plot development and her skill at turning a good phrase and basically goes through her own personal hell waging a stealth war against the male dominated milieu she finds herself in. Not to mention becoming the motivating force behind diva-like, ageing actor Ambrose Hilliard, played wonderfully here by Bill Nighy.
The film is not particularly overtly ostentatious in terms of the way the shots are designed but it does have some nice compositions and it was way more controlled than the last film I saw at the cinema by this director, the 2000 production Italian For Beginners, which complied fairly rigidly with Lars Von Trier’s Dogme 95 rules for making movies at the time. So, obviously, that was a million miles away from this kind of film, which is obviously less naturalistic and more ‘studio stylised’ than the former (although, my one take away from Italian For Beginners when I saw it at cinemas 17 years ago was that it was an amazing film and I really should see it again... I guess I need to get around to doing that again now I write this blog).
The film is fairly pitch perfect, though, in the way it manipulates audience emotion and there are many accomplished elements to marvel at.
Arterton’s almost deadpan, emotionally confounding mask is quite hypnotic here, as she plays the role of a woman of the era in which this is set with the required amount of emotional neutrality shown to the outside world that summarises the British spirit of ‘make do and mend’ in a totally brilliant way. I’ve admired this actress since I first saw her as a Bond girl in Quantum Of Solace in 2008 and it seems to me she’s one of those people who can just knock it out of the park without trying every time I see her take on a role. I was very impressed, also, with her Welsh accent here.
Another interesting thing about the film is that it, in some ways, manages to have its cake and eat it by both romanticising the period and historical events depicted here without going as bleak and raw as you would expect but still managing to make the ugliness and futility of the situation even more potent by using it in a poetically visual way in contrast to the ‘1940s movie time’ it sometimes seems to take its cue from. For instance, there’s a lovely sequence where Arterton is trapped in the streets during an air raid in the Blitz. A bomb lands on a building behind her and she is thrown to the floor by the explosion. As she stands, dirt covered after the initial blast, she sees the dead bodies of people around he and reacts in horror. As she looks closer she realises that they are all mannequins from a shop window which was caught in the blast and starts laughing at her foolishness. This is then counterpointed by her turning the corner and coming across the mangled body of a real woman who was killed in the blast. And it’s little gems of moments like this one that make this movie one to take a look at.
Also, the chemistry between her and actors like the aforementioned Nighy and Sam Caflin is another thing which kept me hooked throughout the movie.
There’s a lot of humour too and one stand out moment for me was when the crew are shooting a Dunkirk beach scene and Bill Nighy comes rushing into the shot standing behind the glass matte painting which has been situated a few feet in front of the camera to add in all the people... completely ruining the effect but, at the same time, showing audience members who are unfamiliar with this technique the reality of one of the more effective of the non-CGI techniques which were being used in many films of the 20th Century (something that director Mario Bava was an absolute master of, by the way... he used to paint a lot of those matte shots in both his own and other director’s films himself).
The film is also blessed with a score by Rachel Portman which manages to capture and enhance the range of emotions from the broad comedy, through the subtle romantic beats and the underlying tragedies of the main protagonist’s life during this period. Which is useful because, although the film does tend to lull you into what you think might be a formulaic ride... the finished product proves to be anything but. There are some things I really didn’t see coming and that includes some sequences which kept the tear ducts flowing, it has to be said.
Not much else to say on this one other than, yeah, it’s one of those wonderful, historical pieces that British productions seem to do best. Their Finest is a film which tugs at the heart strings and... you know... insert your own, less jaded ‘emotional roller coaster ride’ metaphor here. Its glamorous facade does nothing to diminish the poignant, emotional punch it manages to deliver by the juxtaposition of sudden tragedy striking at the same time as some of the film’s more uplifting moments and it’s certainly one I’d recommend. One of the more interesting of recent films set in this period, I think and, as far as I’m concerned, a more engaging one than a certain other movie that depicted events at Dunkirk in the cinema this year.