** (out of 4)
WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
If there’s just one thing Danish-born director Lone Scherfig wants you to take away from Their Finest, her new movie about a (fictitious) woman named Catrin (Gemma Arterton) who scripts a “morale-boosting” film for the British public during World War II, it’s that movies, above all else, are an escape. You get a first inkling of this notion when Catrin’s screenwriting colleague, a sharp, somewhat arrogant man named Tom (Sam Clafin), abruptly bursts into a nostalgic monologue on how life, unlike film, doesn’t have “structure” or “purpose.” The events that follow – right after the two of them first kiss, he dies in front of her eyes when a large crate falls on him – only hammer the point in further. And by the end, as we see moviegoers cry in a theater and a final image of Catrin happily working at her screenwriter desk, the self-serving, Sullivan’s Travels-esque message of the story has been all but firmly implanted in your brain: life is cruel, and the world of cinema is the best way to deal with the pain.
How ironic, then, that Their Finest itself turns out to be anything but a pleasant, painkilling escape. With her female protagonist and the looming historical British setting, Scherfig clearly wants another go at the sort of story and themes that brought her such success with her 2009 film An Education. But whereas that one at least succeeded in holding a relatively unified storyline – even if it ended up being a bit forgettable – this movie never figures out what it wants to be. There’s some uninspired commentary on sexism in the brief scenes in which Catrin negotiates her salary; some commentary on moviemaking that the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! already made with far more humor; a subplot about an aging actor’s (Bill Nighy) attempts to reestablish himself that Birdman already covered in far more detail; some talk about the evils of war that every other historical movie has already hashed out at length; and some wannabe-biting observations on the differences between America and Britain that never provide more than weak laughs. If put together well, all of these elements could have perhaps made something interesting, but it feels as though Scherfig threw them all together without ever taking the time to look them over and flesh them out. The result is a mishmash of ideas that never takes you in: if anything, you often find yourself realizing just how long 117 minutes can really be.
As if such muddledness weren’t bad enough, however, the story turns out to have another saliently irksome feature: the questionable attitude it adopts towards fact and fiction. Catrin is originally ordered to make a script out of a newspaper article about two sisters who allegedly drove a boat across the English Channel to rescue soldiers off the shores of Dunkirk; when she goes to visit them, she finds that, contrary to what the clippings suggest, they in fact didn’t even make it halfway across the Channel before their boat broke down. In better hands, this contrast between legend and reality could have perhaps been the setup for a Liberty Valance-esque take on the manipulation of truth. Instead, Scherfig caves for a far more toothless approach: we watch to loud, soaring music as the scriptwriters embellish the sisters’ story with a non-existent American romantic interest, a lovable hero of a father (instead of the abusive drunk he actually is), and a successful rescue operation where a broken propeller becomes the setup for a heroic, patriotism-inducing save. Whatever comments Catrin – and, for that matter, we in the audience – makes on the glaring factual deviancies are dismissed as mere “pedantry,” and we’re made to feel that they’re little more than the nitpickings of an annoying party-pooper, unnecessary obstructions in the noble quest to leave people entertained.
To be sure, there’s some appreciable irony to all this twisting. The Secretary of War (Jeremy Irons), a pompous, Shakespeare-quoting blowhard, insists at one point that including the American romantic interest will encourage the U.S. to enter the war – an idea that, given its disconnect from what actually happened in history, speaks to the crudeness of propagandistic “messaging” efforts. But lying behind all this talk of tweaking the storyline to achieve this effect or end is an unchallenged belief that movies can only be escapist if they abandon or even distort reality, an “It’s only a movie” mentality that is not only wrong but has also been a godparent to revisionist, blatantly false movies throughout history (Gone with the Wind, Gladiator, The Last Samurai, Argo…and on and on). Many recent films – Lion and Hidden Figures, to name a couple from just last year alone – provide solid proof that you can be engaging and thrilling without being utterly disrespectful of the truth; in the two examples just cited, verisimilitude was in fact an essential part of why they proved fascinating to watch. It’s thus rather mystifying that Scherfig bears such affection for a way of moviemaking so disdainful of the potential of facts.
Still, despite all these problems, Scherfig is fortunate; what she’s made turns out to have just enough redeeming facets to save it from becoming a total mess. The performances, for one, are excellent: Arterton ably balances timid modesty with angry righteousness throughout, Clafin is alternately jerky and earnest in all the right places, and Nighy steals the show as the aforementioned actor searching for redemption. In several spots, the cinematographer also makes able use of contrasts in lighting: London, particularly Catrin’s apartment, is cloaked in shadows and a pervasive grayness, while the rural countryside where Catrin falls in love with Tom is bathed in brightness.
The best parts of the movie, however, come in the places where Scherfig plays with our expectations regarding movie romance. At one point, Catrin and Tom sit with each other under a romantic full moon – but instead of expressing their love for each other with the corny dialogue you’d expect, they argue and part ways. Later, a grieving Catrin is shown dreaming up a reconciliation scene chock full of the corny dialogue we were initially expecting. And at the end, as mentioned before, we’re finally treated to a kiss scene with corny dialogue…that’s then immediately followed by Tom’s fatal accident. In moments like these, Scherfig shows real inspiration, a perceptive understanding of what makes her audience tick. When it’s all over, you only wish that she had brought such thoughtfulness to the rest of the movie as well.
Their Finest (2017)
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Clafin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston
Running Time: 117 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for some language and a scene of sexuality.”
Produced by: Elizabeth Karlsen, Amanda Posey, Stephen Woolley
Written by: Gaby Chiappe. Based on Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half.
Directed by: Lone Scherfig