Film Review: Their Finest (UK, 2016) is a consistent delight from beginning to end

Lone Scherfig is a filmmaker who has always frustrated me, delivering a mixed bag of films amongst her career. Her Dutch films were great, but apart from An Education, her films were ultimately flops, especially the turgid One Day.

So I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to Their Finest, but when I found out that it was a comedy as well as a drama, I had my hopes up quite a bit since the Scherfig‘s Dutch films were primarily comedies. And with a cast consisting of Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan and Jeremy Irons, it seemed that the film would indeed be one to look forward to. So, does the film cast and crew live up these new found expectations?

Set in London in the 1940’s, Gemma Arterton stars as Catrin Cole, a scriptwriter who is hired by the British Ministry to lend a “woman’s touch” to their latest propaganda film, writing the dialogue of the women present.

Although her artist husband, Ellis (Jack Huston) thinks she can do better, Catrin’s sheer talent and moxie gets her noticed by cynical, witty, and possibly misogynistic lead scriptwriter, Buckley (Sam Claflin). Catrin and Buckley set out to make an epic feature film based on the Dunkirk rescue starring the incredibly arrogant and pompous washed-up actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy).

As bombs (figuratively and literally) are dropping all around them, Catrin, Buckley and their variably talented cast and crew work furiously and tenaciously try to make a film that will hopefully warm the hearts of the nation.

Despite my initial reservations, I am happy to report that Their Finest was a constant delight from start to finish. Director Lone Scherfig shows why her talent was acclaimed in the first place, as she deftly lays out a dramedy with an assured hand that never becomes too cutesy nor overly melodramatic. Though it does come dangerously close. There are scenes in the third act that threaten to derail the true point of the story, just for the sake of drama.

Adding to the fuel is Rachel Portman‘s score, which certainly does milk the sentiment all of its worth, but thankfully, it works, never truly hindering the film thanks to its old-fashioned tone and the appealing cast.

I remember Gemma Arterton in blockbuster roles that always felt like filmmakers were trying to stuff her into roles that Rachel Weisz would have played early in her career. But seeing her in much more substantial roles like the titular role in The Disappearance of Alice Creed to the seductive vampire in Byzantium to a talking apparition (don’t ask) in The Voices, she clearly has talent. And in Their Finest, she may have given her best performance to date. Conveying inner strength, charm, wit and grace so effortlessly in the leading role, I knew that the film was in good hands the second she appeared on screen.

Sam Claflin is an actor that I have not been impressed with. Not that he is a bad actor, but in roles like The Hunger Games films, the awful Snow White films and the execrable Me Before You, he is not the actor that I have been able to consider in a positive light. Until now. Finally, he is in a role where he has true personality and verve, as Claflin plays Buckley with such a great sense of dry humour and heart that I almost could not believe it was him. Arterton and Claflin share excellent chemistry that grows from disdain to respect and eventually, love. And while the romance could have been perfunctory, the chemistry alone makes it worth the inclusion.

The supporting cast are all wonderful in their roles (including Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, Richard E. Grant and others), with Bill Nighy being the most Bill Nighy in the history of Bill Nighy. In other words, he brings another dimension to the term “self-mockery” and he brings out the funniest parts of the film. Meanwhile, Jake Lacy is a hoot as the Air Force hero turned token American in the film (within the film) and even Jeremy Irons gets in on the fun in a cameo role as the Secretary of War who enforces government “guidelines” to the film.

Although the sentimentality of the film does go a bit far for some, director Scherfig surprisingly deals with the story’s feminist message with a light touch (i.e. how men are scared of women who do not want to go back to their domestic roles after taking on some other workplace). The themes are still present enough that it adds to the character arc of Catrin and to the entertainingly meta moments of the film within the film, but they are never hammered to the point that it becomes obnoxious or annoying.

Aside from being a romance, a drama, and a comedy, the film is also an entertaining look behind filmmaking in the old, practical days. It is quite fascinating and amusing to see how the crew handcrafts the on-screen effects like a scene where the crew are recreating the scene of Dunkirk or how scenes on boats are made on set, rather than in the ocean.

Overall, Their Finest is a definite crowd pleaser that is sure to entertain audiences with its insanely likeable cast, its old-fashioned filmmaking (whether its own or the commentary) and its high amount of charm.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Their Finest hits cinemas 20th April 2017.