It’s next to impossible to simultaneously mock, celebrate and exemplify a film genre, but that’s the magical alchemy that “Their Finest” manages in its tale of screenwriters creating sentimental uplift to boost the morale of Blitzed-besieged Brits in the early days of World War II.
Any film that celebrates the greatness of the movies (and the plucky souls who make them) risks getting lumped together with such recent hooray-for-Hollywood awards-bait as “The Artist,” “Argo” and “La La Land,” but “Their Finest” goes in another direction entirely, demonstrating how Britain’s wartime cinematic output was used to rally support for the war (at home and abroad) while never shying away from the loss, horror and heartbreak that every war creates.
We get a sense that this isn’t just another celebration of stiff-upper-lip survival early on, when copywriter-turned-screenwriter Catrin (Gemma Arterton) is walking down the street in London, only to have a bomb go off just a few feet away from her. She screams at the discovery of corpses in the rubble, then has a laughing mini-meltdown when she realizes that some of those bodies are mannequins from a shop window, then throws up after noticing that some of the dismembered limbs at her feet are not mannequin parts.
It’s 1940, and most of the men are off fighting, which leads to new and exciting opportunities for women. For many, it means jobs in munitions factories, but for Catrin, her skill at sloganeering has gotten her a new gig at the British Ministry of Information, writing female dialogue — which her colleague Tom (Sam Claflin) refers to as “the slop” — for propaganda films. A newspaper clipping sends Catrin after a story that she thinks will make perfect fodder: twin sisters who took their fishing boat to Dunkirk to bring soldiers back to the U.K.
The truth turns out to be far less exciting, but this is propaganda, so they print the legend. The dowdy, thirty-something sisters become beautiful teenagers, fictional love interests and comedy-relief uncles are added into the mix, and censors take out the part where their motor breaks, lest it reflect badly upon British manufacturing. Before long, Catrin’s script has attracted the attention of the War Department (run by Jeremy Irons, who regales the writers with a wonderfully hammy rendition of the St. Crispin’s Day speech); her movie might help nudge the United States into the war, which means they get to shoot it in color — and they have to find a role for the hopelessly untalented, but toothily photogenic, Yank war hero Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy).
How the production works around Carl’s thespian inadequacies, the demands of fading matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), and the dangers and deprivations of a nation at war makes up much of the drama and the comedy of “Their Finest.” It has a “Day for Night”-ish sense of the wonder of moviemaking (there are great gags about miniatures and matte paintings) and the intimacies that occur in the hothouse environment of a movie set, but director Lone Scherfig (“An Education,” “One Day”) and screenwriter Gaby Chiappe (adapting the better-titled novel “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” by Lissa Evans) never keep air raids and casualty counts and food rationing too far from the action.
Catrin constantly labors to make her movie better than it needs to be, and that effort comes through in the scenes we see; we’re allowed to laugh at the conventions of propaganda filmmaking — and the movie-within-the-movie gets the vagaries of 1940s Technicolor just right — but at the same time we’re stirred by the sacrifices and the strength on display. Ultimately, both Catrin’s movie and “Their Finest” itself traffics in feel-good tropes, but it’s the effective storytelling that makes each succeed with an audience.
Arterton has yet to make a splashy breakthrough in this country (the less said about “Prince of Persia,” the better), but she has steadily worked her way toward becoming one of the preeminent British actresses of her generation. She radiates the flash and the determination of a creative artist being given a rare opportunity by circumstance, and while there’s time for love (Catrin is in a go-nowhere relationship with a WWI-wounded sculptor played by Jack Huston), she’s all about the work.
It’s clear pretty quickly that Catrin really belongs with Tom, and Claflin makes his character’s longing palpable while also hidden in plain sight, in the same way that the actor’s movie-star looks are barely concealed by glasses and a mustache. Nighy, of course, takes to his aging hambone with relish, creating yet another of his memorable charming narcissists.
“Their Finest” delivers in a way that would please the Ministry of Information: it’s rousing and emotional, there are laughs and tears, and it portrays people trying and, mostly, succeeding at being their best selves in the service of their country. All it’s missing is a closing-credits admonition to “Buy Bonds.”