This isn’t the best movie we’ve seen in the last quarter (that would be Franz), nor the most thought provoking (which would probably be Paterson). But it is one that we saw between deadlines, allowing me time to write and ponder.
Their Finest tells the story of a young woman who discovers her calling, her confidence, and her soulmate when she takes a job as a screenwriter with a team of Baker Street Irregulars trying to make an inspiring and authentic film that will boost morale and resonate with audiences increasingly finding standard-issue war pictures laughably out of touch. It is funny and well acted, and the resulting movie-within-a-movie is surprisingly touching.
What I liked most about Their Finest I gleaned in its first few minutes, reading the credits. A woman director — Dogme 95’s Lone Scherfig, whose work we first discovered in the charming Italian for Beginners — a woman writer, women doing the music, the design, the editing. This is very good, and very important. Because if women — as well as minorities — don’t get a chance to work on things, how can they get better at their craft? And how can we, the audience, come to accept and appreciate their vantage point and their visions? So this is very good. Just as it was very good to see Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a well-made classic horror movie with a black protagonist, skillfully allowing us to see the world — and experience a correspondingly nuanced dread — through his eyes.
We have been rather steeped of late in World War II, watching a lot of documentaries on Hitler and the Reich, and just beginning a Netflix series, Five Came Back, on noted Hollywood directors, film, and the war. Plus my longest book thus far this year was on the Mitford sisters. Not to mention my growing conviction that the root of all our present ills lies in the dying-off of the last of the Great Generation taking with it its conception of self-sacrifice, commitment, and shared humanity. So we were primed for a respectful and respectable treatment of the war in Britain.
But it didn’t quite click, and the war didn’t register as it should. “Their finest” is a truncation of Churchill’s exhortation to the British people on the brink of battle. Even though it’s made a pun in the title of the novel on which the film is based (Their Finest Hour and a Half), the distillation to two words in the film’s title is a direct harkening to Churchill, and should be a sign that this is about the ordinary British in an extraordinary time. And it is about ordinary people rising to challenges they did not foresee, but these are all to do with personal struggles, not epic strivings — about overcoming disappointment and deficiency, not steadfastly facing down existential menace. Telling the story of a woman’s awakening against the backdrop of World War II is not wrong (in the way, for example, that I find placing the cynical Kelly’s Heroes in this war is), but to me Their Finest did not take good advantage of the opportunities this setting provided to better highlight the tale and clarify the conflicts. And mostly, to make us feel the desperate stakes involved.
Which is really too bad, because the movie had a lot going for it, and just perhaps needed another couple of drafts of the screenplay.
Here is what was especially good: Bill Nighy, who because he is so compelling, rather stole the picture away from the central characters. His portrayal of a preening, pompous actor past his prime, resentfully participating in the film but gradually coming to a new awareness of the talents and contributions of others, was superb, and his character arc is very much in keeping with the promise of the title. Plus it is a line of his that encapsulates what I took to be the theme of the piece, as he encourages the heroine to take up the challenge offered her since the reason old men like him and women like her are being given the opportunities they are is because all the young men are off at the war, dying.
Unfortunately, the main story line is not as interesting. The nascent screenwriter takes the job to support her artist mate and finds herself increasingly attracted to her brilliant, prickly mentor/writing partner Buckley. The promising setup quickly becomes a rather predictable love story, and I’m not sure why it had to be. There are so many interesting real-life platonic male-female writing partnerships: Comden and Green come to mind, and the writer/office mates Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley (if their office had been any smaller, Parker noted, it would have been adultery). These couples found something inspiring and affirming in each other — and then went home to lovers and spouses. That would have been a very interesting tack for this story to take, particularly in light of what ends the relationship.
But the main problem I think is that none of these people have a direct link to the war; the men aren’t in battle, and the danger presented is of a random nature — like terrorism? — as they dodge the London blitz. So there’s less sense of a stalwart commitment to a larger cause, less noble stoicism, less finest hour, than a feeling of living through a daily round of Russian roulette. The real war becomes a haphazard hazard, as the characters attempt to fashion meaning in their film out of hoax and hokum. That they succeed makes this very interesting, justifying Buckley’s separation of authenticity from truth, but this is not where Their Finest focuses.