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Film review: Their Finest

Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) in Their Finest.

A wartime story that is like real life with the boring bits cut out.

The opening moments of Their Finest don’t look promising. It’s Blitz-era London and the scenery has been dressed with monolithic clichés. Terraced houses are in ruins across cobblestone streets, the air-raid warden sounds like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, everyone is in hats and coats and smoking profusely. The double-decker from which Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) steps is unmistakably red and the skies are imperishably grey. Skirted, stockinged and stiff-backed, Catrin picks her way through the rubble, accompanied by a plummy background theme.

We are, I fear, in the territory of Masterpiece Theatre.

As it turns out, we need not worry. As soon as the first lines of dialogue are snappily offloaded, it becomes clear that Their Finest is sharper, funnier and surprisingly more poignant than this period fare usually is. What unfolds is a perfectly charming and downbeat picture that, despite a love triangle consuming everything in the third act, manages to stay witty throughout.

Catrin has been drafted to the Ministry of Information’s Film Division (read: propaganda) to write “the slop” – dialogue for housewives on how to cook corned beef and so on.

A new story is needed to get patriotic hearts swelling. It’s based on twin sisters who reportedly helped the evacuation of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk. “Authenticity, optimism and a dog!” Richard E Grant’s ministry man proclaims. Catrin sets about a script with acerbic screenwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin) for a film that will star Bill Nighy’s vain and delightfully pompous former matinee idol.

Importantly, there is a thread of mournfulness that runs through Their Finest, too, never letting the apocalyptic backdrop slip out of focus. Above all, Their Finest is in thrall to the restorative power of cinema – as Buckley says: “Real life with the boring bits cut out.” 

IN CINEMAS NOW

This article was first published in the April 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.