Sunday, 11 June 2017


WARNING NOTE! This review contains spoilers. If you do not want to hear about melodramatic twists before you see the film, which is reasonable enough as it is good enough to go see, then don't read the following until after you've been to the cinema. If you do read it, then don't blame me.

The other night I took my 13 year old son to see Their Finest, an enjoyable enough romantic film about making movies in Britain during World War II. Movies about movie-making tend to be fun; everyone enjoys playing with the business, and playing versions of themselves which audiences are quick to recognise. Actors adore the period costumes, and cherish the ability to chain smoke with impunity on camera. There's nothing particularly new about it, apart from the fact that the story centres on a young woman who is forced into screenwriting, as it were, and then being turned slowly into a movie pro, but that is, in itself an fascinating take.

What's most interesting about the film is the way in which, despite the modern theme, and the implicit ironic distance the film-makers enjoy, how closely their effort mirrors the movie being made about Dunkirk. It's almost like a compulsion.

For example, early on we see the interference of the government in the film that's being made. The bureaucrats have their contradictory demands, and the film has to be twisted to fit those, even to the point of inserting an American character, to be played by an actual American airman flying the RAF (which makes an interesting factual/fiction ambiguity) who's a walking hunk but can't act. Sort of a prototype Arnold.

But Their Finest was produced in part by the Welsh government, which is why Welsh locations stand in for the Devon coast, but also why Catlin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is Welsh. It's no problem, except that Arterton's Welsh accent comes and goes, but obviously that's exactly the kind of decision that the movie faced.

We don't get many looks into the actual process of movie fakery, though a lovely moment with a matte shot turning the beach into Dunkirk is wonderful, reminiscent of one of the great movie-movies, The Stunt Man. What we do get, however, is a film whose basic structure mirrors, as if unconsciously, the film-within-a-film that's being made in the Forties. We know, for example, before she does that Catlin's marriage to her artist husband is doomed, because not only doesn't he paint her, but they have none of the passionate moments we expect from love interests. This was easy to read Hollywood code from the Thirties onwards; think of Leslie Howard in Gone With The Wind.  If you recognise it, it takes some of the energy from the eventual reveals, but it didn't for my son, who was amazed I could predict the inevitable moment of betrayal. It's also interesting that, to get him out of the war, they give her husband a war injury from fighting in Spain; I would have thought that his fighting there would make him suspicious to the war ministry, and that such suspicion might be enough to keep Catlin from getting a job.

It's also very much a vehicle for Arterton, who, accent apart, dominates almost every scene she's in and is very very good.. The best parts are the easy ones, for Bill Nighy hamming it up as a ham actor, for Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory as his agents, and Rachel Stirling who's very good in a classic wise-cracking 'pal' role, though it's given a slight update. Cameos by Richard E Grant and Jeremy Irons work because they play Forties so well, more because their sorts of characters haven't changed that much since then anyways. What is strange is that none of the younger actors seem able to match her, not either of her love interests nor any of the people playing the younger actors and crew.  It's very much old fashioned in that way, though in the Forties you might see more character from the character actors.

The major throwback of the film, however, is it's melodrama. The Blitz is a time for that, and after the film I was talking to Nate about the English people I'd known who'd lived through the Blitz, and how, as Stirling's character tells Arterton, they felt like life was more intense and they needed to live for the moment. Paradoxically, given the horror, it was really the best time of their lives. Hence we expect some shocking deaths, like Marsan's, which occurs offstage. But we aren't really prepared when Arterton's true love, the screenwriter played by Sam Claflin, dies in a Blitz-caused accident on set.

At that point I had just been thinking how stereotypically Hollywood this all was. Girl meets Boy, Girl Loses Boy, Girl Gets Boy. But I was watching as they finally embraced, and it took place in front of a prop train (third class, no less) and I thought immediately of Brief Encounter, and had already jumped ahead in my mind to his enlisting and going off to war in a tearful farewell. That might have been more in keeping with the Forties tone.

Instead, he's killed by the equivalent of Girl Gets Boy, Boy Gets Hit By A Bus moment. 'What is this', I said, 'Truly Madly Deeply: The Prequel'? It was AN easy way to get some tears and sympathy, when quite honestly, the tears in much of the rest of the movie flow more organically. But then, in the very next scene, Claflin comes back as a ghost and speaks to Arterton. As a ghost! It WAS Truly Madly Deeply, but I suspect the producers assume that film is as obscure as those of the Forties to their audience.

I waited for my own little emotional touches. I felt sure she'd be surprised by a credit at the end of the movie, or maybe by a tribute to her dead writer partner. Perhaps I am too sentimental. Instead, the movie ends with her finding her determination to go into the movies, much like Rose's freeing her boat's propeller in the Dunkirk film, because Erroll Flynn could do it.

This shouldn't take away from the fact that it's an enjoyable film, moves well, features a fine star turn, and left the less critical audience in my town (and my 13 year old, by far the youngest person there) happy. I would have liked the original book title better though. Their Finest Hour And A Half. It's better for the play on Churchill's words (which might pass most of the younger audience by) but maybe because the film itself is two hours long they felt it would be false advertising.

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