Review: Their Finest (TIFF 2016)
PLOT: During the London Blitz, a young woman (Gemma Arterton) takes a job as a script writer for women’s dialogue in morale-boosting films. When an idea of hers gets turned into a massive technicolor production, she finds herself on location with a sexist screen-writer (Sam Claflin) and an over-the-hill former leading man (Bill Nighy) desperate to save his flagging career.
REVIEW: There comes a point in every film festival when, if you’re a journalist watching dozens of film and averaging at least three a day, you get a little numb to yet another movie. This is why Lone Sherfig’s THEIR FINEST turned out to be such a nice little surprise, as I was almost zombie-like when I sat down to watch it, but found myself thoroughly captivated by this WWII rom-com/drama. It’s yet another example of two things - one being that no one does rom-coms as well as the Brits and two, Bill Nighy should be in every movie.
It helps if you have a certain fondness for the propaganda movies being sent-up. Movies like 49th PARALLEL (which unforgettably featured Laurence Olivier mangling a Quebecois accent), with dashing, pencil-thin mustachioed heroes and chipper ladies back home. It was certainly a time of sexists and elitism, giving Sherfig’s movie a certain bite, with it being a lightly feminist tale of a woman breaking-into a male dominated industry and trying to assure some degree of representation for the female characters in her films - not an easy thing when female-dialogue is called “slop” by the male writers.
At its heart, THEIR FINEST is more of a comedy-romance than anything, with sparks flying between Arterton’s spoken-for cub writer (she has a struggling artist hubby played by Jack Huston) and Claflin’s sexist scenarist. The two trade Hawksian banter throughout, and it’s clear the two only have eyes for each other, although in a nod to the danger of the period, Sherfig chucks some rather dark twists into the film, with beloved characters never really being safe in a city routinely bombed by the Germans.
It’s certainly a strong showcase for Arterton, who’s too often window-dressing in movies but proves herself to be a highly sympathetic, likable lead, being a nice Welsh girl coaxed away from home by her dashing hubby, but out-of-sorts in London. As for Sam Claflin, following ME BEFORE YOU, he’s quickly become the new go-to-guy for romance, and he adds a nice touch of venom to his part, making him far different than the typical, floppy-haired English comedy hero.
That said, as good as both of them are, Bill Nighy walks away with the movie as the pompous Ambrose Hilliard, a formerly popular star reduced to taking the comic relief “drunk uncle” part in Arterton/Claflin’s film. Tailor-made, Nighy brings his famous withering delivery and looks to the part, but also embellishes the character with some endearing moments. In short - it’s a part only he could have played.
Of course, everyone else is excellent too, with Sherfig never hitting a false note with her casting. Jake Lacy (Jenny Slate’s love interest in THE OBVIOUS CHILD) is especially good as the square-jawed American war hero recruited to star in the movie despite his total lack of acting ability with Nighy becoming his de-facto mentor. Jeremy Irons also has a nice cameo as the propaganda minister, while Richard E. Grant is cast to perfection as Arterton’s stuffy, elitist boss.
THEIR FINEST wound-up selling to Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp in one of the biggest deals of the fest, and it’s certainly an accessible crowdpleaser, with the screening I attended getting a huge round-of-applause aat the end. If you like other, pleasant (often Nighy-starring) movies like PRIDE and ABOUT TIME, you’ll have a great, uplifting time with this one. I sure did.