War flicks and romantic comedies don’t have much by way of surface crossover, but Lone Scherfig’s new film, The Finest, casually argues that maybe there should be. Scherfig, in adapting Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, finds the common quality that links these two genres together, courage, perhaps better defined as “pluck” in the case of the rom-com, and as “grit” in the case of the war picture; maybe we watch these kinds of films for different reasons, but maybe stick-to-it-iveness and steely determination aren’t really all that different if you’re not the type to split hairs over vocabulary. Their Finest runs on both, and so leaves us no hairs to split.
Scherfig could no more tell this story without its characters’ moxie than she could without its characters’ gut-deep bravery, which leaves her with something of a conundrum: How best to balance the breezy jubilance of the rom-com with the harrowing gravity of the war movie. To her great credit, she doesn’t bother balancing them, so much as she marries them, presenting these dueling details as two sides of the same coin, and in a film like Their Finest, how could they be anything else? It’s a rom-com wrapped up in a war picture, or perhaps the other way ‘round, depending on your perspective. The very idea of fitting the circumstantial dramas of the former within the marital dramas of the latter makes perfect sense for telling the tale of two seemingly mismatched people falling in love against the backdrop of the Blitz.
Their Finest is set in 1940s London during the Battle of Britain, a time when ash fell on city streets as often as rain and moreso than snow; a leisurely stroll from the tube to work could easily end in fire and uproar, if you were unlucky enough to walk past a building just as a bomber’s payload made contact with its roof. Set amidst this uncertainty, fear, and carnage, we have Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a young lady called to the Ministry of Information to write scripts for public information films screened before the marquee movie at local cinemas. She’s a type A gal, though, and after pissing off the grandiloquent ham actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) on the set of a PIF, Catrin is reassigned to work with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), a thorny screenwriter, on a story about twin sisters who helped out in the Dunkirk evacuation effort.
Except they didn’t. They tried, bless their hearts, but their engine died en route to France. Talk over their heroism turns out to be just that, but Their Finest is a movie about movies, and the movies never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn. So Catrin and Tom set about adapting the sisters’ misadventures into a rousing entertainment to stoke a fire in the bellies of the British people, sniping at each other all the while, as lovers-to-be so often do in rom-coms. Scherfig’s audience isn’t stupid: We know it’s only a matter of time before Catrin and Tom get their hands all over each other, regardless of paltry details like Catrin’s marriage to Ellis (Jack Huston), a struggling war artist, or Tom’s insufferable, wry smartassery. But Scherfig doesn’t condescend to the viewer. She knows we aren’t stupid; we only seek amusement and delight.
Scherfig and Their Finest both oblige. If there’s one word worth using to describe the film, it’s “nimble.” The narrative practically dances from one moment to the next, gamboling along ceaselessly, save for when Catrin’s world literally falls apart around her. We can see the seams when the film switches modes from “comedy” to “wartime terror,” but that isn’t a flaw in Scherfig’s design: It’s an acknowledgment of her characters’ tenuous circumstances. We’re making a movie here, and making movies is good fun, but it’s sobering how quickly good fun gives way to near death experiences when your country is at war with well-armed fascists. If Their Finest does only one thing well, it’s demonstrate the sheer unpredictability of life, as dictated by conflict. Early on, Catrin is caught on the fringe of an explosion, panicking over the sight of what she thinks are corpses. On closer inspection she realizes they’re mannequins, and she laughs, relieved, until she spots a human body in the rubble, and then she hurls.
The film doesn’t gloss over the awful realities of war in general, and World War II specifically, but it does try, at every turn, to find light in the darkness: Playful banter between Claflin and Arterton, uplifting elements of female empowerment in male-dominated societies that remain male-dominated even when the men are fighting overseas, and lovely moments of communal cheer, a’la a late-stage sequence where Ambrose, brought on board the Dunkirk film to play a crotchety drunkard, leads the crew in a stirring rendition of “Wild Mountain Thyme.” Neither Scherfig nor the film offer much comment about the nature of war itself, but they don’t have to. They only have to remind us what’s worth fighting for, though this suggests a movie that’s far more serious than Their Finest cares to be. It’s confident, self-assured work from a veteran filmmaker with much to say about her craft and myriad ways of saying it; it’s also an airy, deft production—not a lark, but an amusement anchored by real-world ballast.
Their Finest is a joy to watch, if not for Scherfig’s direction than for Arterton’s leading performance, a mixture of affronted gumption, feminine stoicism and vulnerability that adds up to towering portraiture. (She chides Ellis, who habitually depicts her as a blue-tinged smear in his paintings, for making her “so bloody small,” but Arterton cuts such a striking and fearless figure throughout the film that the castigation is almost hard to swallow.) Alongside its purest cinematic pleasures, Their Finest makes nod after nod to both the medium’s persuasive and preservative powers. The right movies can inspire people to do great things, or at least to be better people, but the movies at large make us immortal, as Scherfig shows us in one tender beat from the film’s climax. Her compassion is as much a binder here as courage is a common thread tying her dueling genres together.
Director: Lone Scherfig
Writer: Gaby Chiappe
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Rachael Stirling, Paul Ritter, Helen McCrory, Jack Huston, Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsan
Release Date: April 21, 2017 (Theatrical); July 11, 2017 (Blu-ray)
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist, Slant Magazine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.