Danish director Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest is a very British romcom.
Dunkirk Spiritby Alexa Dalby
Set in a sympathetically recreated wartime London, Their Finest‘s script by Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, has as its central character a female scriptwriter of “informational” – propaganda – films for the Ministry of Information. They were badly needed at that time to raise morale after the retreat from Dunkirk and to encourage America to enter the Second World War.
Women’s dialogue in those unsophisticated short films was referred to as “slop” at that time, and although Their Finest aims to challenge discriminatory attitudes towards women and to recognise their contribution to World War II with its central character, Welsh Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, Gemma Bovery), it’s a rom-com not a polemic. Catrin, even though she’s extremely determined and independent for the era, wavers between her career and her love interests – a selfish artist (Jack Huston, Ben-Hur) and fellow scriptwriter Tom (Sam Clafin, The Hunger Games). And in fact the film is stolen by national treasure Bill Nighy’s supporting turn as Ambrose Hilliard, an actor past his time yet still chronically self-absorbed, hilariously sending up the acting stereotypes of that generation. Rachel Stirling (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) is man’s suit-wearing Phyl, the woman from the Ministry with a bark worse than her bite, and Richard E Grant and Jeremy Irons play other bigwigs.
The film that Catrin is working on is ostensibly about the heroism of two sisters who set off in their boat to rescue soldiers from the French beaches. However, in its journey to the screen, it’s fascinating to see how a story based on a lie is transformed into a stirring film that has a deeper meaning than the people who made it could have hoped for. The relationship between film and reality is that film is “real life with the boring bits cut out” as one character says. And unlike life, film has a plan, purpose and meaning, something that wartime inevitably disrupted.
This is Scherfig’s second period film after 1950s-set An Education. It’s a pleasant mixture of gentle satire of the film industry, a female-driven narrative and a wartime pastiche rom-com. It’s interesting that although both Their Finest and Raymond Briggs’ Ethel and Ernest, also shown at the London Film Festival, were conceived and completed before the Brexit referendum, both films celebrate a patriotic British spirit which currently seems to be up for grabs.
Their Finest screens on 13, 14 and 15 October as the Mayor of London’s Gala at the BFI London Film Festival.