Their Finest is based on a book about World War II era British filmmaking titled Their Finest Hour and a Half. I’m not sure why the title was shortened, as the original title is rather clever. Perhaps it was deemed too clever in a cutesy way.
The movie is part comedy, part drama, but in the end I would say that while it has a few lighter moments and mildly farcical characters and situations, it is mostly serious.
In 1940 London, Catrin interviews for what she assumes is a generic secretary-type job at the Ministry of Information, and is surprised when she is hired as a scriptwriter. She’s still dealt with as if she held only a low-level job in that in keeping with the sexist customs of the day she is paid less than male scriptwriters, treated as their subordinate, and limited—until she gradually proves herself capable of more—to writing, or at least suggesting, some of the female dialogue of the films she works on.
She lives with a boyfriend (they tell people they’re married, for obvious reasons since this is 1940). He is an artist, disabled due to a war wound from the Spanish Civil War, not successful enough, yet anyway, to support them, thus requiring her to work, which creates some tension. (Not in the sense of her resenting having to have a job—she mostly likes it—but in the sense of it evidently making him feel sensitive about his manhood.) He is especially displeased that her job at times requires her to work some distance away so that they have to separate.
Of the people she works with, the two most significant to the plot are a co-writer and pseudo-supervisor named Buckley, and an aging egotistical actor on the downside of his career named Hilliard.
Buckley is a cool, confident, wise-cracking sort, and it’s evident from early on that there is some interest, some sexual tension, between him and Catrin. I felt like the film was encouraging the audience to maybe favor him relative to Catrin’s boyfriend. I found myself more sympathetic than not toward both, though I suppose I did indeed end up preferring Buckley slightly. It may be, though, that that was largely a function of his getting considerably more screen time than the boyfriend. It’s natural, for me anyway, to identify more with a character the more I’ve been given the opportunity to get to know him or her. For that matter, for that same reason I felt like it was natural to side with Catrin insofar as there were conflicts between her and the boyfriend—I “knew” her better, and could more easily see her side of things.
Hilliard was probably my favorite character in the movie. Early on he’s portrayed in an over-the-top manner and seems to be in the film only for comic relief. And it’s pretty good comic relief; he’s a funny, full-of-himself, goofball Ted Baxter-type lacking in self-awareness. But gradually we see that he’s actually a decent guy, with a fair amount of depth, with dignity and gravitas that is not all faux, and maybe not so lacking in self-awareness after all.
In a visit with Catrin near the end of Their Finest, he delivers what I take to be one of the messages of the film. It’s a line that handled poorly could have come across as maudlin and hokey, but he pulls it off movingly.
Initially Catrin and her cohorts work on government propaganda shorts. But the Ministry of Information is also involved with feature films, and she soon finds herself investigating a story that could be made into such a film. (The precise nature of that involvement wasn’t clear to me. I take it the government provides a certain amount of funding and other support for certain films, and in exchange gets some creative control/censorship privileges to make sure they come out appropriately patriotic and uplifting.)
It’s a heroic Dunkirk story of working class twin sisters who take their father’s little boat and contribute to the mass evacuation of British soldiers from the continent. Unfortunately, when she speaks to the sisters, she discovers that they really didn’t do anything of note (the boat had engine trouble, so they never made it to Dunkirk to rescue anybody) and that the story about them that had appeared in the press was mostly fiction.
They move forward with the movie idea anyway, though there is considerable internal debate over the appropriateness of presenting the material as factual or based on actual events.
I’m not at all surprised that the side that wants to make the film even though the underlying story has been debunked wins the debate. What surprises me is that there is a debate at all.
I’ve commented unfavorably numerous times in these essays about how fictionalized “true story” movies routinely are. My impression is that it’s universally accepted in the business to falsify movies to make them more entertaining and profitable (in a way that would never be accepted in nonfiction books, newspapers, or other media, and that’s regarded as a scandal whenever it is discovered to have happened), that it’s not considered some kind of controversial moral or artistic compromise. I’ve written about this recently in my piece on Hidden Figures, for example.
And that’s regular movies. In the case of some government-backed movie put out during wartime to serve a propaganda purpose, I would assume there’s even less of an expectation of strict truth-telling.
So, yeah, they’re fudging considerably with this storyline, but since when has that been a problem in the movies?
One thing I think Their Finest does well is keep the war itself in proper perspective. It’s obviously hugely important in these people’s lives, and directly or indirectly affects just about everything that happens to them. The film shows that impact often enough that you always know the war is there, just as it would never have been far from the mind of anyone living through it in real life during this time, yet it’s not so constantly center stage that this becomes a war movie where other aspects of the characters’ lives (careers, relationships, deaths or other tragic events not caused by the war, etc.) are ignored or downplayed. These are flesh and blood people with all the good points, bad points, habits, and ambitions that people have, not stock characters in a movie about World War II.
I enjoyed Their Finest. It’s not a movie I heard or read much about before I saw it, and it’s not one for which I had particularly high expectations. Having seen it, it’s not one I’d put high on my list of my favorite films I’ve seen in recent years. But in a more modest sense, it won me over. It’s a pleasing movie that I’m glad I saw.