For the major players on both sides of the camera in Their Finest, the title is a bit of a misnomer.
Indeed, the primary actors and director Lone Scherfig (An Education) have each done finer work elsewhere, although this breezy and heartfelt comedy exudes some crowd-pleasing charm along the way.
It’s a lighthearted look at World War II-era cultural propaganda and paranoia from a British perspective, although the modest insight is overwhelmed by sentimentality.
The film follows Catrin (Gemma Arterton), a young clerk assigned to the film division of the British government’s Ministry of Information. Their assignment is to create a feature film that will boost morale among citizens after the Blitzkrieg without being transparent about those intentions. “Authenticity with optimism” is the mantra.
Catrin’s writing skill slowly earns the respect of her male counterparts, including a fellow writer (Sam Claflin) who finds her tenacity alluring, even as her idea to portray a story of everyday heroism connected to the recent Battle of Dunkirk quickly turns into a fiasco filled with script embellishments, budgetary constraints and acting foibles.
Catrin becomes an unlikely crusader for gender equality, both on and off the screen, in addition to a voice for the working class. As her script is picked apart, her priority becomes saving the female leads from the cutting-room floor.
In their flirtations, Arterton and Claflin show glimpses of the type of chemistry you’d find in an old-fashioned screwball comedy. And Nighy is a notorious scene-stealer who supplies a healthy dose of hilariously sardonic pomposity.
Scherfig and her crew effectively re-create the period, even if it’s overly sanitized and wistfully nostalgic. The “authenticity” they’re portraying doesn’t jive with the reality right outside the studio walls, which is symptomatic of the film’s awkward shifts in tone.
Likewise, the screenplay by veteran British television writer Gaby Chiappe includes some scattered moments that are amusing and affecting — including some jabs at unrefined American moviegoing tastes — but generally it lacks subtlety and surprise, not to mention wartime context.
Utlimately, Their Finest shares plenty of parallels with its film-within-a-film (which supplies many of the biggest laughs), whether intentional or not. Both struggle to find a satisfactory ending, and both suffer from insufficient “authenticity with optimism.”