The Second World War has been raging on the European continent, and Britain has been labouring under the Blitz, its major cities blighted with Nazi bombs whenever night falls. The public are growing increasingly disgruntled, even scared, and the Ministry of Information wish to drum up support for the war effort while telling them how to cope with the situation and what they can do to improve it. Propaganda films appear to be just the ticket, but the trouble is there has been a poor reception towards them as the population feel as if they are being patronised, and criticise their quality, so the professionals are required to spruce them up. One such professional is Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), newly arrived in London from Wales...
As it seems everything about World War II had been documented and fictionalised in every possible way on screens large and small ever since the time of the conflict, why not a film about making those films? Here was a story, based loosely on the Ealing screenwriter Diana Morgan and her career as the sole woman on the writing team at that famed studio; she had her name on quite a few scripts of the war years, and acted as what would be called a script doctor on others. The hard-hitting Went the Day Well?, about a Nazi invasion in a sleepy English village, was probably her highest profile project, but she was just as adept at comedy and, as Catrin does, contributed to the propaganda shorts too.
This might have been entertaining as a straightforward biopic, but took the decision to approach it as if Morgan's war years were seen through the filter of one of the movies she had written, therefore Catrin may have been drawn from a real person, but the story we were offered hit many of the same beats a wartime morale booster might have done, complete with grim acknowledgement that this was not a cheerful time for the country, yet encouraging the population to do their very best for the sake of not only those doing the fighting, but also those back home who may have been struggling. All this set against a backdrop of women's place in society growing more visible than homemakers would have been.
Naturally, Morgan was a great role model in that latter respect, a career woman who made a success of herself and served as an example to those in the media and entertainment industry who arrived after her. But it was a little odd to see her romanticised so much here, when judging by her writing she must have been a lot more pragmatic in the way she tackled her work; there were scenes where Arterton got to play the woman who refuses to be the victim, be that at work or home, yet for quite a bit of the movie that was precisely what she was, unlucky in her profession and at home where she is married to artist (Jack Huston) who we find to very little surprise he has been taking advantage of her, just as happened on the film she is writing.
Fortunately, with an actress like Arterton she was not going to essay the role as anybody's doormat, even if that was the unfortunate position the film placed her in. Adopting a Welsh accent, we sympathise with her character as she navigates the minefield of being what according to this was a man's world, be that the world of work or the world of filmmaking, so you could see why the story, based on Lissa Evans' novel, was so appealing to many of the women involved behind and before the camera, including director Lone Scherfig. Yet there was such a glow of nostalgia that jarred with the parts where the harsh realities of the war had to be depicted too, possibly a comment on how we can look back fondly on just about anything with the passage of time, conveniently ignoring the harrowing elements.
Those elements were here: when the bombs drop people do get killed, and it was set just after the events at Dunkirk which the film Catrin is writing is trying to turn from a negative into a positive for the sake of the nation's morale. But aside from the confrontation of sexism, and a smattering of strong language, Their Finest could have been a greatest hits of how the home front had been portrayed down the years, from humorously to tragically, and as such entertained a second hand air. Our heroine has to counter the attitudes of the main writer on her film, played by Sam Claflin, who gradually wakes up to her talent and a romance brews since her husband is a dead loss, and Bill Nighy had a nice turn in a supporting part that could have been a lead had the focus been altered as the past-it star clinging onto his fame and esteem with the public in self-centred fashion. However, its attempts to tug the heartstrings could be unforgivably clunky, most egregiously a twist in the last act so arbitrary in its manipulation it verged on the insulting. Maybe the real Morgan could have given this the rewrite it needed, had she been around. Music by Rachel Portman.