The year is 1940, the place, London. With the nation bowed down by war, the British ministry turns to propaganda films to boost morale at home. Realising their films could use ‘a woman’s touch’, the ministry hires Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) as a scriptwriter in charge of writing the female dialogue. Although her artist husband looks down on her job, Catrin’s natural flair quickly gets her noticed by cynical, witty lead scriptwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin). Catrin and Buckley set out to make an epic feature film based on the Dunkirk rescue starring the gloriously vain, former matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard, a typically scene-stealing performance by Bill Nighy. As bombs are dropping all around them, Catrin, Buckley and their colorful cast and crew work furiously to make a film that will warm the hearts of the nation.
Their Finest sets out its stall as a lightest-of-light comic drama but transforms into a thoughtful, trenchant and penetrating wartime romance. On a dime, the director, Lone Sherfig, a Dane, loads this unabashedly frivolous material with considerable heft and insight. She constantly loops back on herself, reinvigorates minor story threads and develops the drama in surprising ways.
Arterton plays it wide-eyed and Welsh as unflappable Catrin, her relaxed, supremely confident and intuitive comic performance surely ranks as a career highlight. She brings no airs and graces to the role, showing that simple, unironic emotions when properly handled can work like gangbusters. A relationship percolates between Catrin and Sam Claflin’s cynical screenwriter, Tom. Their opposing views on the function of cinema, the horrors of war and the necessity of keeping that upper lip stiff eventually, inevitably allows them to form a deeper connection, even though she is essentially working solely to keep her wounded artist hubby in oils and canvas.
Yet the film ends up being less about cinema as a cheap form of escapist illusion, and more about how the daily dramas of life sometimes feel ripped directly from a juicy screenplay. The context of wartime intrigue takes a back seat to the idea that cinema has a strange way of affecting people in unintended ways. The film climaxes with the stirring declaration that a movie can exist not merely as a document of a moment in time, but as a glimmering monument to those who appeared in front of the camera – whether they wanted to or not.
The film appeals to Swedes, who stayed out of the last War; it won an award for best Feature Film at the Gothenburg Film Festival earlier this year.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall