First things first: Bill Nighy is an international treasure (but you already knew that). Singlehandedly capable of transforming a comedy from wan to winsome, the droll patron saint of mediocre British movies has only become more welcome as he’s grown more ubiquitous. “Their Finest” is as wan (and winsome) as anything he has ever made, but Nighy — playing a pompous wartime actor who serves as a glorified prop in his country’s interchangeable propaganda films — has never been better. Alas, the lanky British baritone has no business being the standout of a story that exists in order to celebrate the value of female storytellers; Bill Nighy is many things, but a woman isn’t one of them.
A characteristically lush period rom-com from “An Education” director Lone Scherfig, “Their Finest” winds back the clocks to a time when movies were a matter of life and death. We open in London circa 1940. German bombers are sweeping over the city like rain clouds, American politicians are hesitant to join the fight, and British civilians are worried that Dunkirk might soon become a daily reality. With most of England’s young men fighting overseas and the morale of those left behind dipping by the hour, the cinema became a singular source of solace, a place where a ravaged community could gather together and remember what the fight was for. Or, if the movies were shite, it could be a place where people felt hollow and hopeless.
“Optimism” and “authenticity” were the studio buzzwords of the day, but if the former was as easy to manufacture as munitions, the latter proved more elusive — that’s what happens when an industry of men finds themselves catering to an audience defined by women. And that, in this frothy and heavily fictionalized portrait of British film history, is why a talented young copywriter named Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, radiating through an underwritten role) was summoned into the picture business and offered £2 a week to write convincing female dialogue — “slop,” as it was referred to back then.
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Adapted from Lissa Evans’ novel “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” Scherfig’s film opens with a title sequence that underscores the raw utility of Catrin’s new job, the whirring belts of an ammunition factory shot to look like the inside of a projection booth. It’s a clever touch in a movie that often feels a lot like slop, itself, and the world into which our plucky heroine is soon introduced is presented in similarly cold fashion.
Operated under the watchful eye of the Ministry of Information, the studio isn’t exactly kissed with movie magic. The scripts are abysmal, the actors — namely Ambrose Hilliard, Nighy’s withered old coot — are resentful that their talents have been conscripted for the cause, and the crew has to readjust whenever one of their ranks is killed during an overnight air raid and fails to show up for work the next day. But anything is possible in the movies, and — as Catrin begins to carve a new career for herself — it seems that anything is possible through the movies, as well.
Scherfig has long since established herself as a master of glossing middlebrow entertainments with a thick layer of candied prestige, and “Their Finest” is as handsomely furnished a production as they come. Cradled in one of Rachel Portman’s swoon-worthy scores and graced with some stunning seaside cinematography, the film often feels like a Masterpiece Theatre riff on “The Devil Wears Prada,” particularly as Catrin proves her worth in an unwelcoming business and gets sandbagged with stupid romantic subplots.
Yes, there are men vying for her affection, as well there should be in a movie that’s by, for, and about women in the real world, but the love triangle that Gaby Chiappe’s screenplay angles for never takes shape. At home, Catrin is dealing with a dreamboat artist (Jack Huston) who doesn’t respect her artistic ambitions, or anything else about her. At work, Catrin is bickering with Buckley (the impressively versatile Sam Claflin), a screenwriter who gives off a screwball vibe.
It’s not a problem that the film wants to have its cake and eat it too, that Scherfig hopes to brush off the idea that a female-driven story is a genre unto itself and can’t also be a war picture, a costume drama, and / or an industry satire. It is a problem that the film completely fails to do that, as everything it tries to do it does at the expense of something else. The romantic scenes are cute, but they feel at odds with the drama. The laughs land like chuckles, the love registers as mere fondness, and the salient observation that countries recast themselves during wartime is reduced to a fleeting detail.
Most inexplicably, the shooting scenes are fun (again, Nighy robs the rest of the cast blind), but most of them relegate Catrin to the background, and her contributions to the film within the film are too slight to make an impact. It’s bizarre that a film about the value of diversity — about the need for underrepresented voices to be involved at every level of the storytelling process — should wait until its limp final minutes to make that point, made all the stranger by how “Their Finest” recalls an era of filmmaking that was anything but subtle. The movie has its moments, but that most of them belong to Bill Nighy leaves you wondering whose finest you’re really watching.
“Their Finest” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.