Their Finest – a review

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Gemma Arterton stars in ‘Their Finest’ – oblivious of double yellow lines in the 1940s

A choice of two films this weekend both annoyingly and unimaginatively navel gazing. They are obsessed with the movie trade. One is British, one American. To irritate all the more they have a women as the central plucky talent trying to make it in the profession.

To be honest neither are inviting if subject matter, cast, and PR blurb are anything to judge by. They read as middle-of-he road slight productions, both destined for late night television before the year is out.

Coincidentally there are other similarities though only one is based on a novel.

Aging Warren Beatty’s look at a year in the autumn of Howard Hughes life as Hollywood movie producer is a love story he has co-written. The other film, how women were allowed into script writing on the British side of the industry, is also a love story, based on Lisa Evans Their Finest Hour and Half. I’ve no idea why the title was shortened, other than easier to get on a poster.  Maybe they thought critics would exploit it for a cheap gag – too long a running length.

A piece of British war nostalgia or a Hollywood vanity project? Hmm.

When I think back to Warren Beatty’s best films none are those he directed such as the seminal Bonnie and Clyde. He did direct Reds and took everybody by surprise, but generally he’s relied on other directors to propel his career.

His problem, it seems to me, is two-fold, behavioural and physical. He carries an air of vanity about him, too self-regarding in whatever character he performs – maybe Carly Simon’s song was ‘about him’. Secondly, his eyes are too close together and beady to be truly expressive. Now enjoying the status of Hollywood royalty, Beatty’s eyes have disappeared to the point of seeming two grains of rice on a terracotta tile. That must be a handicap in a profession where close-ups can make your face 20 feet tall on a screen.

In the event, I plumped for the British version of making movies though anything ‘British’ at the moment has unfortunate overtones of colonial propaganda, and misplaced patriotism. It’s a wonder Their Finest wasn’t entitled ‘The Best British Finest’.

Sure enough, in keeping with the barrage of British propaganda that has Scotland the unfortunate recipient these last years, Their Finest is actually Our Finest, a group of filmmakers finding a story to ‘inspire our nation’ – that is, England.

Released now, during a General Election that the British Tory party hope will wipe out all dissent for the next twenty years, it sticks in the craw. What a coincidence. No wonder we Scots fall foul of paranoia.

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Arterton sleep walks scenes but is attractive in blouses, cardigans and wrinkled stockings

Let’s get one thing out of the road, this is not about the pains of being a script writer. Hardly anybody suffers for their craft. There’s a lot of stiff upper lippery. The film has characters sit at a typewriter, scroll in a sheet of A4, think for a few seconds, hit the keys clackety-clack, and hey presto, out comes a fully formed script. (If only it was like that!)

There are two kinds of script writers. There are those who work from inspiration, usually politically driven, think of Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia, and I, Daniel Blake, and undertake the occasional adaptation, and there are hacks who write cliché to a formula. I’ve done the first two and also ‘doctored’ poor scripts written by others where a character development is missing, or some humour.

The best screenplays tend to come from good novels, the screenwriter knowing what to leave out and what dialogue to add. Usually they leave out a lot of both, films are primarily visual. There are exceptions. Six writers worked on Casablanca, the first the novelist himself. Somehow it still ended as a piece of cinematic art.

In this tale of British filmmaking during World War II, Gemma Arterton – a so-so actress who keeps popping up to no great effect but a lot of chatter – plays Catrin Cole, a plucky young woman who finds work as a propaganda film screenwriter. She’s soon bored by the daily grind of “Britain and the Empire are good for mankind” informationals full of Hooray Henry drivel she has to write. She yearns for something of substance. The task of writing these scripts is presented grandiosely: Catrin receives the directive “We need a story to inspire a nation.” So off she goes to create a spirit of Dunkirk saga.

I can think of half-a-dozen propaganda films churned out by the Hollywood machine, often by some of the best directors, and Their Finest deserves credit for exploring a woman’s role in such an effort. Far too many WWII films are strictly tough, square jawed masculine stories in which women exist as quick-study love interests.

Catrin is more than that, though disappointingly her romantic trajectory is predictable. She’s pretty, empathetic, intelligent and quite witty, delivering her script ideas with enthusiasm.

It might surprise readers to learn that the writer was considered the lowest of the low in any production. They carried less status than the Best Boy, who brought the coffee. Not until the mid-Nineties were they allowed on a set. Directors felt constrained to have a writer sitting at their elbow complaining his work was getting crucified.

A woman screenwriter in the Forties was considered a novelty, and while the film addresses this, (she’s hired to capture “the feminine experience” – yuck!) Catrin’s struggles, sweat and hopes, never play like anything more than a jolly ramble.

Their Finest makes the long process of writing look easy. As I said, typewriter keys get clicked, a paper of two is balled up in frustration and tossed away, but soon enough – kazzam! – a script appears. (I refused computers and stuck with a typewriter until almost the Millennium. When my daughters insisted I use one it was a revelation – but I still can’t get the Snowpake off the screen.)

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It’s not the best film this year, and it not a charming comedy

The film does have a certain  warmth. It’s what’s called, slightly disparagingly, very tasteful. The best moments are those that lovingly show the process of filmmaking.

In one scene, set on a beach, a large piece of painted glass disrupts our field of vision until the shot pulls back and reveals it’s a piece of the set designed to create a cinematic illusion. Such visual invention is mostly kept to a minimum, though, as director Lone Scherfig’s (Lone?) aesthetic is in keeping with English period pieces of the last few years. And she has the smarts enough to engage the considerable talents of Rachel Portman as composer of the film’s music.

Like The Imitation Game and The King’s Speech before it, the film largely relies on small, enclosed rooms, double-breasted jackets, and a muted blue-grey colour palette as a means of tastefully conveying the past.

There’s comic relief in the hoary gestures of the normally droll Bill Nighy, enjoying himself as he plays the vain aging Ambrose Hilliard, the star of the film within the film. Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Irons make welcome appearances as higher ups, which pretty well guarantees Their Finest is nothing if not terribly English.

Playing the lead screenwriter is Sam Claflin. His Tom Buckley is bespectacled and awfully sensitive, and working close to Catrin in a chatty, one lump or two, creative atmosphere inevitably leads to that kiss.

The specter of war is always present, the blitz rages around their heads, delicately muted of course, and loss too becomes inevitable, but tension there is none, and very little conflict either. This is a B movie, and we ‘Brits’ have been churning them out for eons.

In a late scene Catrin finally watches her film with an adoring crowd. The moment and the composition is surprisingly poignant: The colors on the screen within the screen are a welcome burst of brightness, and the audience is rapt. In the world of Their Finest, at least, propaganda works.

Their Finest is a disappointment. It offers very little other than a jolly jaunt in Forties costumes, among Bakelite telephones, and cars with headlights masked. It could have delivered something more. I really should be angrier about the waste of time and talent on a television film, but there are bigger targets to fire at in London at the moment.

  • Star rating: Two and a half
  • Cast: Gemma Atherton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy
  • Director: Lone Scherfig
  • Writer: Gaby Chiappe, based on the book by Lissa Evans
  • Cinematography: Sebastian Blenkov
  • Music: Rachel Portman
  • Duration: 1 hour 57 minutes
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One Response to Their Finest – a review

  1. Excellent review GB – (D’ang sauted Y fronts for tea then 🙂

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