With the Christopher Nolan epic Dunkirk, and Gary Oldman’s capital A Acting in Darkest Hour, you’d be forgiven for having completely missed Lone Scherfig’s addition to the Battle of Dunkirk tales that were shown in 2017, Their Finest. Well, let me put it to you that that’s something that needs to be rectified.
Lone Scherfig joins up with Gaby Chiappe to adapt Lissa Evans book, Their Finest Hour and a Half. On the surface, Their Finest is a deceptively simple tale – in a bid to help boost morale, the Ministry of Information enlists screenwriters to tell inspirational tales about the battles that have raged in ongoing World War II. It just so happens that there’s a perfectly suitable story that is related to the Battle of Dunkirk, and (fortuitously) also involves two women, twins Rose and Lily Starling (Lily & Francesca Knight). They set about telling this tale under the title The Nancy Starling. While the focus in the media and entertainment was (understandably) centred on the soldiers in battle, there was still a need to boost the spirits of the women at home who worked tirelessly to manufacture ammunition, mend injured soldiers and keep the United Kingdom running while the men were gone.
Enter Gemma Arterton’s Catrin Cole, a fictional character created as an homage to the Welsh screenwriter, Diana Morgan, who as per Lissa Evans ‘…entered the lions’ den of the all-male writer’s rooms at Ealing Films and had to put up with a lot.’ Morgan was a screenwriter on Went the Day Well, a film that focused on a rural English village that warded off a German invasion. Arterton’s Cole is brought in to write ‘the slop’ for the features – meaning, the women characters dialogue. See, given the extremely male-centric writers rooms, the women’s dialogue inevitably ended up as, well, slop. There was no care or bother given to the women’s dialogue, even if they happened to be the ones attending the cinemas the most as the war raged on.
Films about filmmaking have always been a wonderful curio for the film fans out there. Getting to see how the creative process is portrayed on screen is a great look behind the curtain of the world of cinema. Throw in a bunch of historical information about the value of cinema during wartime, and you’re pretty much on the ball with Their Finest.
What makes Their Finest such a unique endeavour is the female driven viewpoint. Having a predominantly women driven creative team – with director Lone Scherfig, writer Gaby Chiappe and actress Gemma Arterton in the main string-pulling roles – makes a world of difference to this tale about women in the war time. Sure, it’s a fictionalised tale about the truth, but that in itself is an element that feeds right back into the plot. As is often criticised with stories based on real life, the facts are often bent to service the core theme that the story demands. Does it matter if there wasn’t an American soldier at the Battle of Dunkirk if the need to sell the film to the American audiences (and in turn, hopefully encourage America to come join in the battle to stop Nazi Germany) is strong enough? Does it matter if the twins father was an abusive drunkard who would have excoriated them for stealing his boat to help rescue soldiers? Not really, especially if these facts get in the way of a good story.
Most war stories are told from the perspective of the male soldier – think the guy wiping the sweat from his brow, ready to breach the trenches and take on the faceless enemy all by himself, or the ragtag team of POW’s working together to thwart their enemies progress and break out of camp. And, if we are shown life at home from the perspective of the inevitably tired, exhausted, waiting wife, then it’s via shots of her longing over photos of her long gone husband as she deals with a burst water pipe, or the never ending bills. So, soldier at war – good, heroic, a model figure for society. Wife at home – depressed, anxious, eternally suffering over the plight of her man.
This is to not say that these stories have no value – they certainly do, and it’s with thanks to films like The Hurt Locker and Stop Loss that the ‘heroic soldier’ and the ‘long suffering wife’ trope has been updated for the 21st century to reflect the harsh realities of war. (On top of this, this is not to discount the great war films that have preceded these efforts.) However, in the long tradition of British films that showcase the hard working women that keep the country moving (Millions Like Us, Made in Dagenham, Suffragette), Their Finest subverts the cinematic notion that British women in World War II were housewives with no ‘home’ to tend to.
From the ability to find the positive in a flawed truth (contrary to the newspaper headlines, the twins whom The Nancy Starling is based on didn’t even manage to get all the way to Dunkirk to help save soldiers due to their engine breaking down), to the core narrative of Arterton’s Catrin Cole standing up to the patriarchy in various ways. She fights against her artist husband, demanding she be able to pave her own path forward in the world. Demanding to be valued as an artist, just as he pushes forward with his dark wartime focused artworks. Cole pushes the government to keep the fictionalised (but no less well intentioned actions) Starling twin rescue as the center of the film. To remove their legacy would be to lessen a story that would empower women. If Cole’s employment was to add character and pep to ‘the slop’, then it would become redundant to reduce the women’s story to nothing.
On the flipside of Cole’s push for equality is Bill Nighy’s stubborn actor, Ambrose Hilliard, who refuses to become a tool for the war, that is, until his hand is forced due to a personal loss. Nighy is – as always – great as this curmudgeonly old figure who refuses to become a piece of propaganda. After all, he has built up a career portraying well known, greatly admired characters, so why would he want to spend his twilight years playing out characters that are just created to encourage people to be excited about going to war? In one telling line, he criticises the war saying, ‘this war has taken the cream off the top, and all we’re left with is the curds’. Little does Hilliard realise that he has become part of that group of curds.
It then falls to Catrin Cole to manage Hilliard’s ego, and in turn, do for him what she was employed to do for the women characters – create an interesting, engaging character that feels less like it’s trying to push an agenda, and more like it’s trying to help tell an entertaining story. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that Scherfig and Chiappe are taking a well-earned dig at the decades of poorly written women characters. The strength in Scherfig’s direction and Chiappe’s writing makes this comparison feel less like a rote analogy, and more like an organic, natural part of character development – you know, the thing that every story should already have.
There are some rough edges here and there – Jack Huston’s gruff and rough husband Ellis Cole, can’t help but feel a little too deliberately unlikable, while Jake Lacy’s talent less American soldier feels every bit of the afterthought as his character is. Sam Claflin’s co-writer Tom Buckley is a good foil for Arterton’s Cole, providing a much needed real character to bounce off, even if he is relegated to being ‘all round good guy’ for the most part. At just under two hours, just like most writers rooms, there does feel to be too many spices in the dish, trying to make an already full and well-rounded story into something grander, or deeper than it needs to be.
To just call Their Finest an ode to wartime stories is to do it a disservice. This is also an ode to the way films are created, and the inspiring nature of cinema. Yeah, it’s got a rose tinted glasses, misty eyed feel to it, but it’s also got heart and level of honesty that is so rarely given the spotlight in films about film. (As an aside, I struggle to think of many films about film that are written and directed from a woman’s perspective – In a World… comes to mind, but after that I’m not sure. Please sound off in the comments if you know of any.)
In a modern era where we’re increasingly conscious of the need for and the value of women voices behind the screen, Their Finest reminds us of those who came before and worked silently (often uncredited) to further the feminist cause. Gemma Arterton delivers another great performance in a career peppered full of great performances (when will she get her due?), and in turn, thanks to her earnest, confident, proud work, helps show that when the world is looking its darkest, a film can help shine a light into the void to make things just a fraction better than what they are. As Catrin Cole says, ‘after this war, they can’t think that things are going to go back to the way they were.’
Give this Dunkirk flick a watch – you won’t regret it.
Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Sam Claflin
Writer: Gaby Chiappe