If the BFI were determined to kick off LFF 2016 with a best-of-British film, they should have picked Their Finest.
True, director Lone Scherfig is a Dane and A United Kingdom has more of a social message; not to mention an irresistible title. Still, a light period dramedy about the can-do creative spirit of Brits on the home front during World War Two, starring Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy no less — what could be more comfortably British than that?
Based on Lissa Evans’ Their Finest Hour and a Half, the film follows Catrin Cole (Arterton), a comely Welsh copywriter, who, having applied for a job at the Ministry of Informational, finds herself writing “slop” — a derogatory term for woman’s dialogue — for propaganda reels.
Stuck in the cramped corner of an office with the supercilious but intriguing Buckley (Riot Club’s Sam Claflin), she seizes on a story that seems to perfectly fit the given brief of “authenticity with optimism”: that of two girls who stole their father’s boat and set sail to Dunkirk to help with the evacuation. Rose and Lily (Lily and Francesca Knight) might not fit the heroine model — they’re mousey and wear identical sweaters — and, by their own account, they never even made it to France, but, for the purpose of bolstering British morale, it’s too good a tale to pass up.
Their Finest is about the process of making a movie, but also everything that surrounds that process. While Catrin and Co. struggle with the script and what they think is important — why can’t it be Lily who untangles the boat propeller? — bombs continue to fall on London; people die, fall in love. Over-the-hill matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy, sublime) can’t get decent service at his favourite restaurants now the usual Italian waiters have been interned. The film is amusing in its broad strokes — there’s the strapping, blonde American RAF pilot (Jack Lacy), cast to help encourage America to join the war, who can’t help grinning straight at camera —and affecting in its details; as in when one of the cast is called in to identify the body of an acquaintance killed in an air raid.
Nighy, meanwhile, manages to make Hilliard, in the vein of his ageing rock-star from Love, Actually, arch, egotistical, and truly sympathetic. He might not want to play Uncle Frank — “a shipwreck of a man; 60s, looks older” — but damned if he isn’t going to make the best of it. Nighy’s expression may be tranquil, stony even, but emotion gradually creeps in around the edges, like dawn breaking. The effect is extraordinary.
Their Finest is, on the whole, predictable — there’s wartime politics, unlikely romance, off-screen tragedy. It’s all so brisk and well-observed, though, as to be irresistible. An abrupt serve into tragedy, which almost derails the tone, becomes instead a valedictory opportunity for the power and necessity of storytelling to shine through.
It’s a theme that seems to resonate particularly this London Film Festival — A Monster Calls went weepy with it, Nocturnal Animals is the arthouse equivalent. This, though, is BAFTA bait and in the best possible way.