“Their Finest” is set in London in 1940, during the height of the Blitz, and takes its title from a speech by Winston Churchill. It is a film about filmmaking, in particular the making of a film that needs to serve as a salve for the besieged British populace, boosting morale and helping, in its own way, to win the War. It features a plucky, proto-feminist heroine, a jaded love interest, a raft of distinguished English character actors, and an adorable dog. When boiled down to elevator pitches, “Their Finest” sounds less like a film than a winning round of Oscar-bait bingo.
Happily, it is nothing of the sort. It is, rather, a relentlessly charming romantic comedy that sees director Lone Scherfig steer a sharp course correction from 2011’s misbegotten “One Day,” and finally expand the sensibilities she displayed with “Italian for Beginners” and “An Education” into a more commercial direction. Aiming for a target somewhere between Howard Hawks and Richard Curtis, “Their Finest” is the sort of crowd-pleaser that knows the difference between satisfying its viewers and flattering them, all the while showcasing surprising performances from Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin, and an entirely unsurprising one from Bill Nighy — a master scene-stealer pulling off yet another brazen heist.
As a capable but self-doubting Welsh girl living hand-to-mouth in London, Catrin (Arterton) thinks she’s applying for a secretarial position when she walks into the British Ministry of Information’s film division. But when her supervisor (Richard E. Grant) learns that she has experience as a newspaper copywriter, he hires her for what he surely considers a much worse position: as a writer of “slop” — an old screenwriter’s code for dialogue between women — for the propaganda shorts that run between features at cinemas.
Though the work is deadening, Catrin needs the money, with her painter husband (Jack Huston) failing to bring in much income from his dour grey canvasses. One day, she’s dispatched to the coast to interview twin sisters who helped ferry soldiers home during the evacuation of Dunkirk, to see if their story might be fodder for a film. Once there, she finds a dead end — the twins’ heroic tale was profoundly exaggerated, and the two women are black holes of anti-charisma — but decides to pitch an idealized version of their ordeal anyway.
On a directive to make movies that contain “authenticity informed by optimism,” the Ministry greenlights the Dunkirk film, and assigns Catrin to help write it. To do so, she’s paired with Buckley (Claflin), a sour young screenwriter described as having been “spawned in a pub out of sawdust,” and who considers their mission of “authenticity informed by optimism” inherently self-contradictory.
Initially spurned by her male co-writers, Catrin gradually learns how to get along in the smoke-and-booze-filled writers room; begins asserting herself against Buckley’s condescension; and even stops objecting when the script starts to drift further and further from her already-fictionalized take on the Dunkirk rescue.
Once the film gets ready for casting, we’re introduced to Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy), a deluded, narcissistic actor gone to seed, for whom the War’s greatest injustice is the lack of proper service at his favorite Italian restaurant. In need of work, he begrudgingly agrees to take an embarrassing role in Catrin’s film — as a disheveled drunk uncle who dies halfway through — while pestering her for rewrites all the while. This is a role Nighy has played many times before, but like a veteran rock star still skillfully belting out the greatest hits, he never fails to sell his punchlines.
When they travel with the film crew to shoot on location, Catrin and Buckley’s bickering relationship starts to deepen, their flirtations all the more interesting for being grounded entirely around work. Arterton tackles her role as Rosalind Russell-turned-Rosie the Riveter, coming alive as she gradually forces Buckley to regard her as an intellectual equal, while Claflin reveals an entirely different side of his performing talents. His youthful good looks obscured by thick Joycean glasses, a slightly receded hairline, and that particular type of poor posture that can’t help but scream “writer,” the actor translates the insinuating arrogance of his “Hunger Games” role into tetchy, neurotic sarcasm with admirable success.
Adapting Lissa Evans’ novel, screenwriter Gaby Chiappe does deft work to balance the farcical film biz misadventures with the simmering unease of the rationing and air-raids occurring just outside. But at times, the film offers too much of a good thing. With so many fun supporting parts throughout — Helen McCrory as Ambrose’s ball-busting new agent, Jake Lacy’s talentless American actor shoehorned into the cast for diplomatic reasons, or Jeremy Irons’ government minister, who delivers the funniest recitation of “Henry V’s” St. Crispin’s Day speech yet committed to film — some significant plot threads risk getting lost. Huston is particularly ill-served: his husband role has no real function other than to be an obstacle to the leads’ romance, and it’s not even a particularly daunting one.
Nonetheless, Scherfig’s tonal instincts are spot-on, and her depiction of wartime London (achieved with the help of a mostly-female below-the-line crew) strikes a believable balance between grit and rose-tinted nostalgia. The film is broad and rib-nudging when it wants, understated and dignified when it needs to be. Even when it takes a turn for the tragic, “Their Finest” never loses its buttoned-down good humor.