Directed by: Lone Scherfig
Premise: Set in Britain during World War II, a secretary (Gemma Arterton) is promoted to the position of screenwriter. She is assigned to adapt a true story set during the British retreat from Dunkirk and the project becomes a critical piece of British war propaganda.
What Works: Their Finest is primarily the story about a woman breaking into a male dominated industry and asserting herself against the patriarchal climate. That sounds pretentious but Their Finest is very entertaining. The movie follows the story formula of people getting together to put on a show—in this case produce a motion picture—but there is quite a bit going on underneath and in the background of this film. During World War II, the British film industry was subsumed by the Ministry of Information which correctly saw the cinema as a way to reach average British citizens, inspire patriotism, and commit them to the war effort. Most of these efforts at propaganda were failures; as is often the case in that kind of filmmaking, the political agenda overtakes the drama and the picture fails at both. Their Finest is about a group of filmmakers who try to make a satisfying piece of entertainment that will inspire its audience to fight the fascist menace. The film is smart in a number of ways. Firstly, it dramatizes the struggle between creative and non-creative stake holders. The Ministry of Information and the War Department take an interest in the project and give directives that the filmmakers must scramble to satisfy. This part of the picture is a smart comedy about the inherently compromised nature of feature filmmaking. Secondly, Their Finest is a very good case for why diversity behind the camera is important. Virtually everyone involved in making the movie is male even though their film is based on a true story of two women. The female screenwriter played by Gemma Arterton does what she can to preserve the integrity of the story and keep the female characters from getting lost in their own film. And that leads to the third smart and sly aspect of Their Finest. The movie presents a story about creating propaganda for the Allied cause of World War II and how to do so effectively while subtly presenting its own political message about feminism and gender equality. And like the characters in their story, the filmmakers of Their Finest do a great job of balancing that political theme with the needs of the drama. The filmmakers also do an excellent job maintaining the tone. Overall, Their Finest is pretty light but it is underlined by melancholy; in an era of nightly air raids, death could come at any moment. And yet the film has lightness and life to it and is even quite funny in places.
What Doesn’t: The weakest element of Their Finest is the love triangle between Gemma Arterton’s character, her artist boyfriend played by Jack Huston and her writing partner played by Sam Claflin. It’s cliché and the movie doesn’t do it very well. The love story isn’t involving and doesn’t have any tension in large part because this woman’s options aren’t very good. Huston’s character is controlling and insists that she remain submissive in the relationship while the writing partner played by Claflin is frequently mean and derogatory toward her and everybody else. It never seems to occur to Gemma Arterton’s character that she does not have to choose between these two men. To their credit, the filmmakers do make passing reference to this by suggesting that in wartime happiness and human connection are fleeting and people should embrace whatever opportunities are available. But the romantic options of Their Finest are pretty narrow and the love story’s understated patriarchal ideas are especially strange given the feminist theme of the rest of this movie.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurette.
Bottom Line: Their Finest is a smart and highly entertaining movie. The filmmakers undermine themselves with a clumsy love triangle but the rest of this movie is intelligent and self-aware and a tribute to the power of cinema.
Episode: #666 (September 24, 2017)