Lone Scherfig’s adaptation of the Lissa Evans novel Their Finest Hour and a Half is the kind of rousing throwback that was popular during and immediately after the Second World War; as a shattered country looked back to past glories and melodramas to help heal the fresh wounds of a bitter conflict. Beyond that, it’s also an homage to the movies that were being made during the conflict: explicitly pro-Britain “why we fight” pictures that pushed propaganda during a state of total war and, to be fair, produced some of the nation’s most enduring and interesting cinema in the shape of: In Which We Serve, Went the Day Well? A Canterbury Tale and The Way Ahead.
In 1940 and with the war in full gear, Welsh writer Catrin (Gemma Arterton) secures a job writing short public information films for the Ministry of Information. Supporting her invalid artist husband, she makes a name for herself at the department and pitches the idea of a patriotic piece of propaganda based on the true story of a pair of twin sisters who stole their father’s boat and helped with the Dunkirk evacuations. Initially facing prejudice and suspicion due to the fact that she is a woman, Catrin slowly wins the respect of her peers as she and her colleagues attempt to produce an inspiring piece of cinema.
Before a screening at the Imperial War Museum, Producer Stephen Woolley spoke of his admiration for, and love of, British propaganda cinema, rating it as the finest age of this nation’s cinema history. If this is indeed a love letter to admirably innovative and dynamic cinema produced at a time of massive difficulty, then it’s somewhat damning with faint praise. It’s so chocolate-boxey that you immediately foresee a heavy rotation on Sunday afternoons on ITV or half expect the cast of Last of the Summer Wine to wander through. It’s also significantly less interesting than the wartime movies it pays tribute to. The late-in-the-day expose of the propaganda movie itself seems so tongue-in-cheek that you almost feel like it’s taking the piss.
Perhaps an unintended positive consequence of the war was that, in many cases for the first time, women were pushed to the forefront of society, into jobs and position of relative power that they had never previously enjoyed. Their Finest does its best to make its central character a smart, talented and ingenious woman – certainly Arterton is very good – but she never feels particularly independent. Catrin is too beholden to the men in her life: propping up the charismatic, dead-weight artist then immediately falling in love with her unpleasant co-worker. A late scene has her fondly remembering a departed male character by tenderly caressing his desk like some idolatrous ritual at an altar.
Bill Nighy, as an effete actor – gets the best of the lines and the movie is not without as certain cosy charm, but as a retrospective on, or celebration of, British wartime cinema, it feels inconsequential.
Chris Banks |
Drama, romance, comedy | UK, 2016| 12A | 21st August 2017 (UK) | Lionsgate Films | Dir.Lone Scherfig | Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Richard E.Grant, Jack Huston