“An Education’s” Lone Scherfig continues her love affair with the British in her new dramatic comedy, “The Finest,” set during the darkest days of the Blitz.
Starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy, “Their Finest” also features terrific English actors who shine in character roles, including Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory and Jeremy Irons
The Danish director had a huge success with “An Education,” her second English-language film, which went on to receive three Oscar nominations, including for best picture, for Nick Hornby’s screenplay and for Carey Mulligan, whose career was launched with her stunning portrait of a young woman coming-of-age in 1960’s England. With “Their Finest,” Scherfig returns to form with another story of a young woman’s reawakening to realize her inner strength and potential.
“Their Finest,” focuses on another smart, complex woman, Catrin Cole (Arterton), who begins to realize her hunger for independence and and for a career after a series of misfires, including an artist husband (Jack Huston) who undermines her at every turn. Catrin is a brainy advertising copywriter who is hired to write female dialogue by the British Ministry of Information for their wartime propaganda feature films, which are meant to boost the British public’s morale.
Catrin’s co-writers – all male – disparage her contributions and condescendingly refer to her dialogue, written to appeal to women, as “slop.” She wins them over, slowly, with her smarts and creativity, especially the rudest of the bunch (Sam Claflin). Soon their bantering and teasing blossoms into love in the tradition of screwball comedies where the dialogue is witty and fast.
Scherfig portrays the spirit and the coping mechanisms of Brits during those dark times in a way that clearly shows how much she admires and reveres their spirit. Writers, actors and crew carry on with making films with all their hearts and imagination even as they navigate the heavy bombardment and the horrific consequences of the omnipresent Blitz. The film shows how the Brits were determined to live their lives as normally as possible in the midst of tragedy and these scenes of horror are intercut with moments of comic relief because this was their way of coping with the impossibility of their situation.
As in America during World War II, when all the young men were sent to the front women began to fill in at their jobs. Many began to realize how much they enjoyed work in which they found personal fulfillment. Catrin, who is a gentle, self deprecating presence, always underestimated herself until gradually as she digs into her new job creating movie scripts she realizes her talent and how much fun writing and work can be and for her there is no turning back.
“The Finest” is adapted from Lissa Evans’ prize-winning novel, “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” by first-time feature film screenwriter Gaby Chiappe, who wrote the witty and elegant dialogue. Praise should also go to production designer Alice Normington for the movie’s exquisite period details and to the music by Rachel Portman, which adds authenticity and another layer of beauty to the film.
Then there’s Bill Nighy, who steals every scene as a pompous, washed up actor, who can’t see the writing on the wall, that his leading man days are over. His portrayal of an actor having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that he needs to settle into character roles if he wants to keep working is both hilarious and poignant. But this is not a one-note part; he undergoes growth and maturity and it’s fun to see Nighty take his character on this journey. His scenes are worth the price of admission alone. And I had no idea he had such a beautiful voice, which is showcased in one number near the end of the film.
Gemma Arterton is an actress to watch. Better known in England where she is a star on stage and on the small screen, audiences are just beginning to discover her here. Her distinctive, throaty voice is reminiscent of the great English actress Joan Greenwood, who graced many of the 1940-50’s Alec Guiness films, including “The Lady Killers” and “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” If you haven’t seen these classics do yourself a favor and watch them as soon as you can because their spirit and humor is infused in Scherfig’s film, which is at heart a loving tribute to films and their transformative and magical powers to unite people, bring hope and make life bearable during hellish times.
For more on the film, here is my interview with director Lone Scherfig in MovieMaker: http://www.moviemaker.com/archives/interviews/lone-scherfig-their-finest-saddest-moments-comedy/