There seem to be two standard modes for British cinema. Tough and gritty (Lock Stock), or peppy and resilient (Made in Dagenham). Their Finest is definitely the latter. The tone is overwhelmingly mired in WWII blitz spirit, but if there was a risk of the film becoming twee and predictable, it is not evident in the final product. While early scenes do suggest a plucky, can-do, happy-go-lucky tone, as it moves and evolves, a more layered and insightful product evolves.
Gaby Chiappe's writing showcases a healthy degree of cynicism, particularly in the dialogue for Sam Claflin's screenwriter Tom Buckley. His character rails against a prosaic, interfering ministry, even as he embodies "Keep Calm and Carry On" better than almost everyone around him. His bitter taste initially sours him to Gemma Arterton's Catrin Cole, but his obvious smarts intrigue her. Likewise, he becomes interested in her when he realizes her seeming naiveté is actually native intelligence. They are brought in to work together on a patriotic British propaganda film about the Dunkirk rescue. Gradually the project takes on greater and greater national significance, just as their workplace relationship takes on greater and greater personal significance.
As the film develops we are introduced to a colorful cast of recognizable types. Bill Nighy dons his Bill Nighy Sunday-best as Ambrose Hilliard, a faded leading man turned lovable curmudgeon. We watch as he grudgingly makes the decision to age gracefully in to being a senior character actor. Richard E. Grant is austere as ever in his turn as government official Roger Swain. Jake Lacey does enjoyable work as picturesque Yank Carl Lundbeck, the man who can fly a plane and look good doing it, but can't act for toffee. Rachael Stirling is the ministry bureaucrat with the heart of gold. Jack Huston is Catrin's earnest but scandalous artist-husband. The supporting militia all turn out good work here, and the film's numerous side-stories all play out wonderfully.
The main event is, of course, the making of the movie and the romance in the writer's room. As production problem after production problem befalls their film, Catrin, Tom and their cohort Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter) have to work faster and faster, dealing with Ministry interference, unwieldy actors, and personal drama. All the while, the war seems to be hitting closer and closer to home. Arterton and Claflin's chemistry is undeniable through all this. They distinguish themselves in that they are able to make their transition from combative cooperatives to love interests both compelling and wholly believable. Gaby Chiappe's script excels throughout, allowing for character appropriate verbal dexterity, whilst also showcasing her ability to write dialogue for all walks of life. The plot twists, which we must assume come from the Lissa Evans novel on which this picture is based, are a mix of comfortably familiar and welcome novelty. Blending the two allows for the one to compliment the other.
Special mention must be made of cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov, and director Lone Scherfig. Their teamwork is tireless here. Their Finest spends extended segments living in the technicolor world of a mid-war movie. Every shot of these sequences looks and feels like the real deal, and is obviously the result of intense care and effort. On top of that, there is a moonlit shot in the third act of the movie that is staggeringly beautiful, to the point where you could frame it. Their Finest is full of little surprises like this that keep the watcher planted firmly in their seat.
Thematically, the film covers the ground you expect it to cover. Much of it in a familiar way: sexism in ye olde England, the horrors of war, the madness of the film industry… the material has definitely been done before. However, Their Finest never pretends otherwise, and is consistently able to put enough of a fresh spin on things to keep the audience engaged and appreciative. In many ways, this is the essence of what Their Finest is: seemingly old rope spun into gold. It is a joy to watch, often heartfelt, regularly witty, and a wonderful cinematic portrait of the world it aims to capture. Recommended to anyone with an appreciation for British film, sentimental war movies, and period dramedy.