It’s the year 1940 and British citizens are facing the harrowing realisation that they may not be winning the fight to which they have lost thousands of lives, homes, and years. Based on the book Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, directed by Lone Scherfig and starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, and Bill Nighy; Their Finest tells a very authentic story of the attempts of the British Ministry of Information’s film unit to produce a propaganda film that will simultaneously entertain and bolster the country’s spirits.
Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is employed by the Ministry to assist their head writer Tom Bickley (Sam Claflin) by adding a female’s perspective to the story. Her primary job is to write the ‘slop’ for the film; that is, ‘girl talk’ or the women’s dialogue. The film is to be as authentic and optimistic as possible, a combination initially dismissed by the characters as impossible in a Britain where a happy ending is becoming increasingly unbelievable. However, the screen-writing team press on, compiling a draft based on a supposedly true story published by a local newspaper – the story of two young girls that commandeer their drunkard father’s boat to assist in the evacuation of Dunkirk, the most recent and crushing British defeat in the war.
As the shooting of the film progresses, major problems inevitably arise. The desired authenticity of the film begins to fade away as the story it is based upon is continuously adjusted to create a suspenseful and film-worthy plot. The Ministry, hoping that the film will assist in convincing their reluctant American allies to join the war, insist on an American character despite the lack of cohesion with the already fragile plot of the story. Older actor Abrose Hilliard (incredibly brought to life by Bill Nighy) refuses to acknowledge that he is not the hero of the show or that he is to mentor the younger and very ill-equipped airforce pilot turned actor Norwegian-American Carl Lundbeck (Jack Lacey). Feelings develop between Catrin and Buckley, adding a romantic twist to an already captivating story. Adding to the drama, bombs continue to rain down on London, with nearly every character losing something to the raids throughout the duration of the film.
In simple terms, Their Finest is a film of unforgettable emotion telling a very real and aching story of the efforts of those that stay behind in times of war. At times uncomfortable and even a little dispiriting, this is not a film that shies away from the brutalities of war. Instead it embraces them, using it to highlight the small moments. In more than one scene, Catrin is told to not give up or lose her drive to create something worthwhile, for she lives in a world where you cannot be certain that you have minutes left, much less hours. Their Finest is a film of clever subtleties and of emotional, political, and social change. As Hilliard says to Catrin in one of the most tear-worthy parts of the film, ‘You and me are given opportunities only because young men are gone. But to turn our back on such opportunities, wouldn’t that be giving death dominion over life?’
Although heartbreaking at times, this film is by no means depressing to the very bitter end. It is filled with clever, witty humour and touching moments. There are several moments where you cannot keep a smile from breaking. It is a story of hope, of survival. In all this is an amazing film I highly recommend – definitely one I will be adding to my collection. 5 out of 5.