In a way, every single movie works as propaganda for the soul. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the execution exists.
Someone walks into a movie theater needing to be swept off their feet for a few hours in order for the real pain of everyday life to subside for a bit. It’s a certain medicinal practice that doesn’t harm the organs, but can enrich the soul. Their Finest is a 1940’s drama that functions as a movie within a movie, and succeeds on the coattails of a supporting actor rather than its leading duo.
It’s 1940 and World War II is breaking out across Europe, so the British ministry has the desire to make a propaganda film to raise the spirits of the people back home struck in shock and horror at the casualties that are pouring in. In order to get a certain female touch, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), to draw up a plot centering around twin sisters escaping from the Germany occupied Dunkirk with the help of a heroic soldier named Johnny. Catrin is aided by the witty idealist Buckley (Sam Claflin from The Hunger Games) and in order for the film to reach the right audience, aging television star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) is brought in.
What follows is a predictable romance blooming between Cole and Buckley, and a slow thaw of the steely old school performer in Ambrose, and it’s all draped around the hardships of the war. The director and writers want to make a true artistic film, but the producers want a feel good story even at the cost of authenticity. While it’s not a premium steak, Their Finest does function as a watchable period drama with some quirk. You can see certain plot threads settling into place from a mile away, and when a certain twist does occur, it doesn’t blow you away. But maybe that is the point; if you take it at face value without much expectation, this movie could serve as a comfort.
Director Lone Scherfig allows the actors to have some fun with Gaby Chiappe’s script, and there are certain scenes that crackle with humor or have a dry wit to them. The problems come into play with pacing, because the two hour running time can feel like a slog at times, and when predictability comes into play, the minutes can really start to resemble slow motion captures.
Arterton and Claflin make for an intriguing couple and share some chemistry, but Nighy’s saucy old haunt steals the show. You can put the British actor in anything, and it’s like a cloth being wiped across a dirty old penny on the ground. Nighy’s ability to combine comedic quirk and a dramatic finish inside one scene, and mix and match throughout a film is wondrous and saves the film. He’s a supporting actor here, but I left the film wanting more Ambrose Hilliard and less of the warm-hearted romantic subplot.
The movie within a movie setup worked for me, because I am fascinated by the drama and real life theatrics that go into a film getting made, and placing this dilemma back in the war torn times makes for good drama and some dark comedy. You can’t make a World War II film without the sounds of bombs crashing into walls and bodies lying around, and when that happens, Their Finest becomes arbitrary and mundane, yet those scenes are few and far between. Gaby Chiappe’s script (which is based on Lissa Evans’ novel, Their Finest and a Half) doesn’t contain much punch and barely climbs outside the bounds. And I think Nicholas Sparks hijacked that typewriter near the end. Just saying.
Could this have been an effective HBO original movie? Yes. Is it worth your ten dollars and concession goods? No. This is a movie that you can easily appreciate at home, and doesn’t require the movie theater pricing and setting. If you are a huge WWII fanatic or really adore Nighy, go check it out. For the casual consumer, it may seem slow and dragged down by a been there seen it done better romantic subplot.
While the film is saved by an impeccable Bill Nighy performance and includes some quirks, I would save Their Finest for home viewing.