With the recently-released film The Zookeeper’s Wife and the anticipated summer release of Dunkirk, World War II films are proving to be all the rage this year. Although the war ended more than seven decades ago, WWII films can help society process one of the twentieth century’s most traumatic events, events whose consequences still impact us today. Whether they focus on soldiers on the battlefield or those they’ve left behind coping with fast-paced social change on the home front, audiences celebrate heroism or revel in the darker parts of human nature. Their Finest allows for both, describing not only the horrors of war but a way the arts can help cope with them.
Based on Lissa Evans’ book Their Finest Hour and a Half, the movie tells the story of Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a young Welsh woman who mistakenly finds herself on the scriptwriting team at the Ministry of Information’s Film Division to boost morale after the evacuation at Dunkirk and the continued German bombings of London. Her transition to the job is not easy, as the stifling misogyny of the time prevents many of her male colleagues from taking her seriously.
Despite these barriers, Cole proves herself a formidable scriptwriter and earns the respect of her male colleagues. Her successful career stands in contrast to the uncertainties of her personal life, including a turbulent relationship with her archetypically starving-artist husband (Jack Huston) and an ambivalent romance with a fellow scriptwriter (Sam Claflin). Behind the action of the main plot, the war looms ominously and colors the trajectories of all the characters.
The seamless transitions between comedy, romance, and tragedy highlight both the versatility of the main actors and the skill of the scriptwriters. The mundanity of a walk home from work can quickly turn into a tragedy, and a budding romance can soon turn sour, but these sudden twists of fate are not forced, in no small part due to the quality of the writing and cinematography. The characters and their stories appear natural and genuine.
However, this authenticity is somewhat superficial. From the beginning, the story of the boat rescue at Dunkirk on which the characters decide to base their propaganda film is mostly fabricated, and the public personae of many of its characters are stripped away to their truer, less interesting selves. Although the hidden secrets surprise, they also come close to flirting with cliché.
Nevertheless, despite a few common movie tropes, Their Finest’s innovative, refreshing structure makes its more pedestrian parts almost unnoticeable. A movie about movies should somewhat blur the lines between cinema and real life, “acting” as the profession of its characters and acting as the profession of its characters, and Their Finest does that well.
Although the war figures prominently in the background, Their Finest is essentially a story about personal dreams and the sacrifices one must make to attain them. Their Finest offers a story, although shying away from faith-like heroism, of personal triumph in the face of one of humanity’s darkest moments. The lines it tows between tragedy and comedy, youthful romance and mature drama, heroism and imperfection prove to be its strongest selling point.