On film war heroes are usually seen dodging bullets or rescuing wounded comrades from the field of battle. Rarer are the stories of those who stayed behind, never touched a gun or saw the front lines. “Their Finest” is one of those tales, a World War II drama about people who pitched in by raising morale.
It’s 1940, bombs are falling, decimating London and confidence is at an all time low. In an effort to boost the public’s confidence The British Ministry of Information, Film Division commissions a propaganda film that will be both “authentic and optimistic.” To this end they recruit Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) to provide “a woman’s touch,” or as they less politely call it, “the slop.”
Working alongside the cynical lead scriptwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin) she comes up with the mostly true story about two sisters who stole their father’s boat to help rescue soldiers from the siege at Dunkirk. Their story isn’t quite as exciting as promised but it does provide two details they can use. The sisters remember a French GI who tried to kiss them and an English soldier with a dog in a tote bag. It’s perfect they say, it has, “authenticity, optimism… and a dog.”
As they toil to craft a script that will please both the Ministry of Information and the movie’s star, aging matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), Mrs. Cole and Buckley’s relationship turns from testy to tender.
“Their Finest” is a feel good movie almost as melodramatic as the film within the film. Luckily the melodrama—unexpected romantic twists and deaths—is wedged between Arterton’s steely-but-sweet performance, a showy turn from Nighy—“The war has slipped off the cream and we’re left with the rancid curds,” he says, complaining there are no good waiters left in Soho—and a vivid portrait of the casual condescension heaped on women, even as they took on an expanded role in the work place.
The melodrama also helps sidestep the obvious inspirational landmines this kind of story usually offers up. The rousing ”when life is precarious it’s a shame to waste it,” message is none too subtle but is gently pushed aside by Mrs. Cole’s character development as she learns to trust herself and accept that heroes aren’t always only on the battlefield.
“Their Finest” is a love letter to film—the source novel’s title was “Their Finest Hour and a Half”—with grand statements about the magic of movies. “Film,” says Buckley, “is real life with the boring bits taking out.” But more than that, it’s a tribute to the women who kept the home fires burning… and the movies playing.