THEIR FINEST: Not Surprising, But Nice Enough
This World War ll film is entertaining, though unfortunately Their Finest doesn't really impress as it should.
If there was a demographic that Their Finest is reaching out to, I am it. My speciality is the portrayal of women in WWII film, further to that I’m one of the many people trying to carve out a career as a scriptwriter and filmmaker (and I’m also a woman, at that). So, as you can imagine, the idea of a film about a woman becoming a scriptwriter during WII, and directed by none other than the great Lone Scherfig, was tantalising to me.
About the very real Ministry Of Information’s attempts to make films that would appeal to women, Their Finest delves into a little known part of history. Using this as background, the film looks at women’s involvement in the film industry and seeks to convey all the fun and complications of shooting a feature film. They do all this while covering the ramifications of WWII on everyday British people and also going for laughs and a romantic back story at the same time. All of this is very interesting and definitely entertaining, though unfortunately Their Finest doesn’t really impress as it should.
A Provenance To Be Proud Of
Admittedly, I’m very proud of Their Finest for reasons that became apparent before the film even really began. Produced by Wales Screen and filmed mainly in South Wales I was thrilled that we finally had a film that would draw some attention to the great production work we do here (we also make Doctor Who). The film also stars a Welsh character, which is practically unheard of. I’m Welsh and the number of Welsh characters I’ve seen on the cinema screen would only just break double figures.
If it wasn’t enough to tick the box of the cinematically under represented Welsh, the film is also a great step forward when it comes to women taking their place behind the camera. Directed by Lone Scherfig the film is based on Lissa Evans’ book, Their Finest Hour and a Half, and adapted by Gaby Chiappe. The film itself is also edited by Lucia Zucchetti, with production design by Alice Normington, all while the ever brilliant Rachel Portman takes the reins as composer. A large majority of the producers and technicians are still men, as is the cinematographer, Sebastian Blenkov, but overall this is still pretty impressive.
The number of women in important production roles on this film is actually shocking. What I love about this is that it is as it should be. And I’m not talking about every film having a huge majority of women in major roles, although it makes for a nice change. What I’m talking about is that this should be a surprise, there should be no one shouting that this is a ‘women’s film made by women’ from the rafters in an effort to get the film seen.
I couldn’t agree more than we need to draw attention to women filmmakers. However, so often we’re confronted with people telling us we should watch a film just because it was made by women, which frankly I find patronising, and just another kind of sexism; paradoxical sexism.
Some Pretty Fine Work
While this is a unsurprising film, with everyone filling out particularly stereotypical roles, there is a lot here to like. The script, while not particularly strong is at least interesting and entertaining, the same goes for Lone Scherfig’s direction. Which has always had the potential for great dramatic moments, but for the most part is just nice and easily accessible. The real problem here is that the film isn’t sure what it wants to be. Its investigation into this side of history is spot on. However, it is unsure whether it’s a film about female representation, a romance, a war drama?
The fact that it tries to be all of these is much to its credit. However, you are left feeling unsure of yourself at many points. Oh my, the war was horrific, but then ordinary life during the war could be bad too, but it’s great that a woman is getting her voice heard in this time, but shouldn’t she be taking more of a lead role? There’s a lot of swaying back and forth which, when some truly terrible things happen, leaves you unsure about your feelings, and ultimately, unsure about the film itself.
This is all being said the moments the film has to offer can be pretty amazing. Dramatic moments that emphasise how the war could intrude on people’s lives. The ordinary but nonetheless heartbreaking events that took place in people’s lives regardless of the war, they make you think. Added to this the vibrancy and creativity of this group of characters is really enjoyable to watch, and the romantic backstory concerning Catrin (Gemma Arterton) and Buckley (Sam Clafin) is quite engaging. However, some stereotypical scenes do feel like a cop-out on either the scriptwriter’s, or original author’s part.
Still, these moments and stories, while unsurprising, are enjoyable because of the actors involved. Bill Nighy as veteran actor Ambrose Hilliard is incredible, I was moved to tears at times and feel like this is without a doubt his best onscreen performance. Likewise Sam Clafin is a delight, as a scriptwriter Buckley. He’s charismatic but complex, and he feels very at home in this role, which makes him all the more watchable. While I like Gemma Arterton a lot, and I like her in this, as the Welsh Catrin Cole her accent grated on me a bit. I come from a town only twenty miles from where this character does and the high-pitches of her accent and the inevitable ADR used to mask Arterton’s mistakes meant that I often found her performance off-putting.
Jake Lacy makes for a nice addition as the ‘yank’ brought in to give the film within a film its US appeal, as does Rachael Stirling as the film’s producer Phyl. Phyl is smart, witty and refreshingly complex for a gay character, which was a lovely surprise. British acting royalty; Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory (among others) add to the texture of the film, with McCrory herself putting a great performance as Hilliard’s agent and prospective love interest.
Millions Like Them
While I wasn’t blown away by this film I liked it a lot and have tremendous respect for the way it has built on a history I love. Films like Millions Like Us and The Gentle Sex were all part of the British Ministry Of Information’s attempt to win over women to the war effort. In doing so it also fundamentally changed the future of women in the workplace and how women were seen on the cinema screen. For me, it’s important that this be addressed and discussed.
More than this I like the way this film portrays women, not only on the screen, but in its production. Not only are they important, but the representation of them and the men they work with stresses that if we are to change how women are seen on screen we have to do so with men by our sides. In Their Finest Catrin may have to fight for her female characters but there’s no slapping of hands and her being put back in her place, the men understand what she has to offer and that she is right, even if they take some convincing. Phyl, likewise, may be complained about, and appear strict, but she does her job well and is respected for it.
It is in these female characters of Their Finest that we see the impact of having women working in major production roles. They make our female characters rich and complex. That being said seven out of ten producers of this film are men, as are many of the electricians, sound and camera department etc. All this makes me yearn for more women to want to do these roles, and indeed be given these roles. But then we can’t change this over night and if we are going to change this we’re only going to get there by working with, not against the men who take up the industry we want to access.
I like Their Finest. As a complete film I wasn’t over-awed by it, but I found it pleasant to watch and there were some really lovely moments to enjoy. I’m proud of what it stands for, and even prouder of its modesty. It has a lot to say about the war, and women’s place within it, and while I wanted more, it gave enough; it drew the curtain back. For those who don’t see things as complexly as I do I’ll just say this; you won’t be surprised by what happens in Their Finest, but you’ll probably like it.
Have you seen Their Finest? What did you think about it? Were you intrigued by this hidden history?
Their Finest is in cinemas across the UK & US, for the release dates in your country see here.
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