Hollywood has never been shy about blowing its own trumpet, making legions of films about its own industry. Some are light-hearted and fun, like 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain, others dark like Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir Sunset Blvd and more recently, of course, there was the bittersweet La La Land. In any case the message is clear: film is part of the national DNA.
Though just as rich in characters and stories, the British film industry has rarely been inclined – or maybe it’s just too modest – to gaze too long in the mirror. It is this beautifully dignified seam of humility that runs through Lone Scherfig’s politely delightful romantic Second World War comedy Their Finest. It’s a cosy reminder, too, that while Hollywood had the exotic hoofing of Fred and Ginger, the Brits had George Formby and Gracie Fields, two left-footed warblers who never strayed too far from the mills of the north.
Adapted from Lissa Evans’s 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half (which makes a bit more sense as a title), the film stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin, a Welsh woman brought to London by the need to find work. Catrin is married, but her husband Ellis (Jack Huston) is a sensitive artist type who prefers to daub gloomy industrial landscapes than sully his hands with paid labour.
Initially applying for a secretarial post at the Ministry of Information, Catrin is instead earmarked for scriptwriting duties by Richard E Grant, who is impressed by her brief experience as a copywriter. He gives her a promotion – writing dialogue (what he calls “slop”) for female characters in morale-boosting movies – although it’s not a post that anyone in the almost exclusively male-dominated company respects.
Put to work with the dry-witted Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), Catrin is sent to interview two sisters, celebrated in the press as heroines after sailing out to rescue soldiers at the Dunkirk evacuation. Catrin sees enough potential for a film that will lift the country’s flagging spirits. All she has to do is stop the women being sidelined for male heroics while finding a suitable role for pompous fading star Ambrose Hilliard, played by Bill Nighy.
Hilliard is a former matinee idol whose career is on the skids – sadly, the closest thing to a heartthrob available with all of Britain’s younger men enlisted. But as the filming gets underway, Catrin starts to question her future happiness and finds her once effortless optimism hard to reignite.
Though it stays pleasingly light, using a beautifully balanced cast of old stalwarts and rising stars, Scherfig’s film never sugarcoats the issues. London during the Blitz is a terrifying prospect; despite the omnipresent bombing raids, there’s eerie calm in the streets and a desperation to cling to normality.
More than anything, though, there is an understanding of the sacrifice that is being made on the battlefields of Europe. While Nighy’s Hilliard is one of his funniest comic creations – a flaky wooden old ham whose vanity always gets the better of him – he is played with humanity and pathos. Deep down, he knows the jig is almost up, and once the war is over, the sun will set on his once glittering career. For Catrin, though, there is simply uncertainty.
Not a very Hollywood concept for sure, but the humour is priceless to go along with a poignant depiction of that old British default – the stiff upper lip.
Their Finest is released in cinemas on 21 April