Their Finest


            London, 1940.  During the Blitz.  The “Propaganda Ministry” decides that what Britain needs is a good morale-booster kind of film, one that would be both “authentic” and “optimistic.” 

            The incredible rescue at Dunkirk, where every seaworthy motorboat in England (more than 800) rode across the Channel to save 338,000 trapped soldiers, would certainly qualify as heroic, if they could just find the right human angle.

            Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) was working as a novice scriptwriter and saw an opportunity; she pursued the story of twin sisters who took their father's fishing boat and were photographed landing back in England with soldiers stuffed on board.

            Catrin just chose to leave out the little part where the sisters' boat actually stalled on the way, and they wound up picking up overloaded passengers from another boat; they never actually made it to Dunkirk.  But as we all know, movies are the place where you can make your own narrative.  And it's “based on a true story” all right---338,000 true stories.

            Catrin was determined to make this work.  Her artist-live-in Ellis (Jack Huston) was struggling to make a living, having convinced her to come to London with him from her native Wales, and Catrin knows she has found her niche, even if he's still struggling with his.  True, there's still much discrimination in the work place.  But there's opportunity, also, with many of the men off to War.

            Catrin finds that working with the other screenwriters, especially Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), is both frustrating and rewarding.  They don't give her any slack, but they do wind up respecting her work.  And that's all she could ask.

            It's always a bit risky doing the “movie-within-a-movie” angle, because it seriously jeopardizes the viewer's suspension of disbelief.  But there was something about typical World War II propaganda films that were stagey, cheesy, and amateurish, and this film somehow successfully straddles that fine line of making us believe our characters, even while they ham it up unmercifully in the name of patriotism.

            There are a couple of fine secondary performances, by Phyl Moore playing Rachael Stirling, the crusty, sassy Office Manager, and by Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard, a vain character actor gone to seed, who's condescended to take part in this production even though it's beneath his stature (and he can't help but say so).

            The Blitz is also a constant companion, not only to the characters, but to the backdrop and context of the film.  It was during that “darkest hour” for Britain, when the Nazi war machine seemed invulnerable, and America had not yet entered the fray.  But the traditional British “stiff upper lip” is difficult to maintain when people are dying all around you.

            Gemma Arterton is luminous in the main role.  Her performance alone is worth the price of admission.  Despite some awkward moments, and a couple of overly dramatic plot turns, this film will connect with your emotions.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  When have you had the experience of “finding your niche”?  What else was happening around you?

2)                  When has a co-worker inspired you to do your best work?

3)                  What's to prevent another Adolph Hitler?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association