OK, I’m a sucker for movies about writers. And it’s not an easy subject to get right on screen, since there’s nothing too cinematic about watching somebody tapping away at a keyboard. But a canny filmmaker can make the spark of the creative process visible by showing a pool of writers pinging ideas off of each other, or escalate drama in a succession of ever more ridiculous demands imposed on the writers by whoever is in charge of their project. Oh, and a little romance never hurts.
Lone Scherfig is a very canny director. And she and scriptwriter Gaby Chiappe manage to craft a smart, entertaining femme-centric movie about writers and writing in Their Finest, using all of the above storytelling techniques. Set in London in 1940, during the Blitz, the story concerns the efforts of a film crew to make a morale-boosting epic to help the war effort. The mood is witty, urbane, and irreverent, but it’s not exactly a lighthearted romp, with the specter of death and destruction always just around the corner.
Adapted from the Lissa Evans novel Their Finest Hour and a Half (which is a pretty funny title, right there), it’s the story of young Welshwoman Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), who arrives in London with her artist husband, Ellis (Jack Huston). The dismal canvases he paints are considered “too brutal” to be used in the war effort, so Catrin goes for a job interview at the Ministry of Information: Film Division, for what she thinks is a secretarial position. But because she’s done some advertising copywriting, she’s assigned to the scriptwriting unit.
Her new boss, Swain (the ever-droll Richard E. Grant), produces films about the war at home, and they need somebody to inject the “female viewpoint” into their pictures. Of course, Catrin is told, “we can’t pay you as much as the chaps” in the scriptwriting pool, but they need her to write what one of her new co-writers, Buckley, calls “the slop”—i.e. women’s dialogue.
Young and able-bodied, the acerbic Buckley (Sam Claflin) was called up to fight, but it was decided he’d be much more useful behind a typewriter than a gun; despite his own irreverence, he has an unerring gift for heart-tugging without bathos—leading to the required “morally clear, romantically satisfying” conclusion. After first assigning Catrin the most inaccessible desk in the office, he soon becomes her mentor.
Catrin interviews twin sisters who set out in their dad’s fishing boat to join the evacuation at Dunkirk, which the producers want to make as their next film. The real story proves to be disappointing, but the writers frame it as true to the spirit of the times, if not to actual facts. As Catrin, Buckley, and colleague Parfitt (Paul Ritter) hammer it out at their adjoining typewriters, Scherfig includes snippets from the movie-to-be playing onscreen as the writers dream up each scene.
Meanwhile, Scherfig’s film percolates with acutely funny dialogue and situations. The producers impose insane demands on the writers—like adding a Yank to the story to appeal to the U.S. market, played by an American-born RAF pilot who can’t act (Jake Lacy). The wonderful Bill Nighy plays an aging ex-matinee idol whose part in the script is deepened by Catrin and Buckley in exchange for him giving the Yank acting pointers.
Jeremy Irons has one funny scene as the Secretary of War trying to inspire the team by reciting the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. Rachael Stirling is great as a trousered production liaison calling herself “Phyl” with a particularly adversarial relationship to Buckley. He doesn’t mind her sexual orientation (nobody does), but he thinks she’s a “spy” for Swain; she says Buckley was “spawned spontaneously in a pub out of the sawdust.”
Like the fictional filmmakers it portrays, Their Finest realizes it may not be able to achieve all of its conflicting objectives, as the bombs rain down around them. But Scherfig’s film continues to engage and surprise us with its wit, skill, and heartfelt emotion.
*** 1/2 (out of four)
With Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Sam Claflin, Richard E Grant, and Rachael Stirling. Written by Gaby Chiappe. Directed by Lone Scherfig. A EuropaCorp USA release. Rated R. 117 minutes