PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The film is Their Finest.
The 2009 book it’s based on is Their Finest Hour and a Half – surely a better title.
But this stirring piece still plays as if it were Their Finest Hour and a Half and Another Half Hour.
A likable British romantic dramedy about the boosting of morale during World War II, Their Finest focuses on the production of a propaganda film following the Blitzkrieg.
In 1940, early in the war and at the height of the Blitz, England’s Ministry of Information is preoccupied with creating sentimental uplift to help keep up the morale of Blitz-besieged Brits while the Luftwaffe is bombing London.
The staff knows that their cinematic output must somehow rally support for the war without shying away from the inevitable horrors and heartbreak that characterize all wars.
Senior script editor Tom Buckley, played by Sam Claflin, helps recruit Welsh copywriter Catrin Cole, played by Gemma Arterton, to punch up what the staff refers to as “the slop,” by which they mean the dialogue of the female characters in their propaganda films. Okay, the girly stuff, which they hope will give their films a “more convincing female angle.”
The Ministry wants to appeal to the Americans, especially mothers and wives, in the hopes that they will come to urge their husbands and sons to go off and join the war in Europe.
It’s the fabulous and dependable Bill Nighy who steals the film as the hilariously self-centered if not delusional – and fading — matinee idol, Ambrose Hilliard, an absolutely unforgettable character.
Along the way, we also get an insightful glimpse into the moviemaking process that is both nostalgic and timeless.
When the hitherto crowd-pleasing film goes in a more decidedly romantic direction in the third act, otherwise keenly observant Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education, Italian for Beginners, Just Like Home, One Day, The Riot Club), who manages what seems an admirably authentic-seeming period re-creation — loses focus just a bit, but not enough to ruin the pudding.
And the genre film nonetheless ends up being anything but predictable.
The satirical script by Gaby Chiappe, based on the Lisse Evans novel, is dry but sharply pointed, with a thorough feminist slant. And the level of gravitas never falters because the spectre of death is ever-present.
Yet we notice that the central running gag – that the film in production has a little bit of everything: comedy. drama, romance, and even a dog – is equally true of Their Finest. And that some of the same techniques being studied under the cinematic microscope are being used on us as we sit there and watch.
So we’ll propagandize 2-1/2 stars out of 4 for the jovial and touching Their Finest, a love letter to movie-making that mocks while it celebrates, and lives up to its title by surely being worth a couple of hours of your time.