By Preston Wilder
What can we say about the Blitz, the air-raid campaign carried out on London by the Nazis in 1940-41? One thing we could say is that it happened almost 80 years ago, and most of those who endured it are now gone. That sounds flippant but it’s actually relevant – because, for a long time, British cinema wasn’t sure how to treat the wartime spirit, torn between reverence and irreverence. “Don’t take that tone with me, young man. I fought the war for your sort!” says a grumpy older man in A Hard Day’s Night, The Beatles’ breezy comedy from the mid-60s; “I bet you’re sorry you won!” retorts Ringo Starr. Now, however, the Blitz is ancient history, and can be repurposed without fear of controversy – first in last year’s Allied and now in Their Finest, viewing the War Effort through a feminist lens.
Gemma Arterton is Catrin Cole, an aspiring screenwriter hired to co-write a propaganda film based (loosely) on the tale of twin sisters who joined the flotilla of small boats during the Dunkirk evacuation. “Obviously we can’t pay you as much as the chaps,” says the man from the Ministry – and Catrin, it’s made clear, is there mostly to write “the slop”, i.e. the women’s dialogue, the equivalent (as someone scoffs) of hiring a Jack Russell to write the ‘Woof woof’s for canine characters. Much of this seems a little overdone, or too on-the-nose – surely the old gender roles must’ve shifted a little in wartime? – though one line does hit home, when Catrin is told by her only female colleague that “A lot of men are scared we won’t go back into our boxes when this is all over”.
In any case, the feminist angle is only one aspect of this excellent but rather bitty movie – other aspects including the showbiz angle, the romantic angle and above all the Blitz angle, showing the details of heavily-rationed, increasingly precarious life in the shadow of death. Details are important, says Catrin, “small authentic details” like the sisters’ recollection of a dog in a soldier’s rucksack – and Their Finest also takes care with details, trying to evoke the texture of wartime London. Kids shovel snow, a woman collects for war widows, a station guard calls out to “boner feed [bona fide] passengers” (as opposed to soldiers, presumably), a man plays his trumpet to raise the spirits of Londoners huddled in a Tube station to escape the bombs. One scene is so weird it can only be based on fact: Catrin staggers through the wreckage after a blast, looks around in horror at the scattered body parts around her, smiles with relief as she realises the ‘bodies’ are mannequins – the bomb hit a clothes shop – then freezes at the sight of an actual human victim, splattered with blood.
That scene also highlights another theme, the fine line between real life and what looks like real life – whether the special effects used in movies or indeed movies themselves, which take reality and happily distort it. Catrin and her co-writers – who include the dashing Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) – turn the sisters’ real-life adventure into a big-screen crowd-pleaser, now including an American, an inebriated uncle and a heroic soldier named Johnny (sample line: “Don’t be a fool, Johnny, there’s a sniper out there!”), and meanwhile the attraction between Tom and Catrin slowly deepens.
Their Finest is itself a crowd-pleaser (that said, there’s a shocking late twist), blending two surefire elements: everybody loves WWII, and everybody loves the showbiz comedy of actors being actors. As in last year’s Hail Caesar!, much is made of a dull American trying to keep up with the Brits – but the star turn belongs to Bill Nighy as a vain, ageing idol, engaged in a constant negotiation for better lines and/or parts. It’s the kind of role (only tangentially related to the main plot) that’s designed for a great comic actor to sink his teeth into – and Nighy does so, making the most of every mini-aria of exasperation and bravely-borne insult to his illustrious person. His cautious response when asked about the veal at his favourite, now much-reduced Italian restaurant – “It’s not… veal in the pre-war sense” – is a thing of beauty.
In a landscape of sequels and superheroes, it’s tempting to overrate this light-hearted drama because it’s witty and grown-up and its characters speak in well-crafted sentences – but Their Finest doesn’t really cohere, except in the general sense of ‘A Woman’s Adventures in the Blitz’. Its pleasures tend to be incidental, like the aforementioned details or a lovely scene where the cast and crew congregate in a Devon pub, Nighy’s character leading the others in a singalong of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ while outside Tom and Catrin sit by the water, overlooked by a stunning full moon. It’s beautiful, though it comes out of nowhere and only semi-fits with the film’s acerbic revisionism. Was the Blitz quite like this? After 80 years, it hardly matters.
DIRECTED BY Lone Scherfig
STARRING Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy
UK 2017 117 mins