Adapted by Gabby Chiappe from Lissa Evans’ novel, “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” Scherfig’s latest period piece traces a fictionalized heroine as she changes the face of England’s propaganda-film machine in the waning days of World War II. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) isn’t a big dreamer — in war-torn London, no one is — but when she’s drafted into writing feel-good scripts for the Ministry of Information, she unexpectedly finds her calling.
“There were female scriptwriters at the time, but they weren’t credited,” Scherfig said. “They did write a lot, and the character is very loosely based on one of those.”
Scherfig, known for her early Dogme features and her breakout “An Education,” saw herself in both Catrin and in the character’s new and weird professional world.
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“It’s a world I care about very much,” Scherfig said. “I too started quite young and started out as a writer before I became a director. I felt very much at home immediately in that world.”
In “Their Finest,” Catrin and Tom are tasked with writing a fantastical (and generously fictionalized) script about the infamous Battle of Dunkirk that focuses on a pair of brave heroines who help the troops and generally save the day. It’s a project that reflects the alternate universe of filmmaking that was wartime propaganda office the Ministry of Information.
Between 1940-1945, it cranked out dozens of features and shorts with titles like “The Call for Arms,” “The Night Invader,” “One of Our Aircraft Is Missing” and “Get Cracking,'” all designed to win hearts and minds, bolster morale, and provided veiled instructions on how to behave in wartime situations. (While many of the MOI’s female screenwriters went uncredited, some films include names like Doreen Montgomery, Jill Craigie, and Diana Morgan.)
And while these films were meant to have the broadest possible appeal, “Their Finest” makes clear that women were the real audience. At its peak, the British military had over 4.5 million soldiers, overwhelmingly male; women were the ones available to go to the cinema.
“At that time, they were making films to kind of get into women’s hearts and help them to feel like there was hope and they were empowered,” Arterton said. “It was such a strange time in the U.K. for women, because all the men were away and they were also given a purpose, they were needed, they were given jobs.”
While the stars of “Their Finest” are all longtime pros — in addition to Arterton, it includes Sam Claflin (Scherfig’s “The Riot Club”) as cranky writing partner Tom Buckley, and Bill Nighy as, appropriately enough, the outrageous movie star Ambrose Hilliard — the film demanded history lessons.
“I didn’t know how they made movies,” Nighy said. “The technology is obviously very primitive and it’s much different from now, but the process is pretty much the same. At some point, somebody says, ‘action,’ and you have to do something.”
Arterton had learned about the propaganda machine in school, though she didn’t realize the entertainment value of the features that were made during the war.
“I knew about propaganda filmmaking, but not to this extent,” Arterton said. “‘[The films] were so moving and gorgeous, and there was this real need for those kind of films at the time. People just needed to see stuff that made them think it was them on the screen.”
Nighy added, “They had no money and no resources and yet they turned out dozens and dozens and dozens of films. I love the fact that they made so many films so quickly, because they had to. You never knew who was going to be still alive the next morning or which bit of the city you could shoot because it might not still be standing.”
Arterton said it was easy to slip into the character of Catrin (“I think she’s unaware of her potential until she’s forced into confronting it, and I think that’s what happened to a lot of women during the war”), but she had a much harder time grasping the film’s tone, one that moves between genre and emotion not just from scene to scene, but moment to moment.
“That was something that sort of overwhelmed me when I read the script,” she said. “I thought, ‘There’s so much going on, I can’t place the tone, I can’t say what it is. Is it a historical, gritty drama? Or is it a comedy?'”
Her perceptions were accurate. Scherfig takes full advantage of the wacky moments that informed the actual production of MOI films, mainly thanks to an amusing subplot involving the stunt casting of an American war hero (Jake Lacy) who is terrifically unskilled in the art of acting.
Still, the filmmaker also doesn’t shy from the reality that the filmmaking efforts were designed to serve a horrific war. When Catrin is not hard at work on her films, she’s enduring the nightly Blitz, both as a terrified Londoner and a key member of a volunteer rescue team. And people die in “Their Finest,” good characters we love, because that’s just how things were.
Arteron said her concerns were soothed by “actually having an expert tone-maker like Lone, [who] managed to kind of keep it simmering.”
“I think the important thing to nail is the tone, the combination of drama and humor,” Scherfig said. “A lot of it is in the script. A lot of it is in the casting. And some of it is having the courage to just do it.”
Women largely ran the show on “Their Finest” as well, including producers Finola Dwyer, Christine Langan, and Amanda Posey, as well as composer Rachel Portman, editor Lucia Zuccehetti, and production designer Alice Normington.
“It didn’t actually really strike me until I proofread the credit list, how many women are on the crew of this film,” Scherfig said. However, she laughed when asked if she thought it was important to the film’s producers that they get a woman in the director’s chair.
“I can honestly say, I don’t think at any point during the making of the film or leading up to it, that I ever thought, ‘Oh, she’s a woman,'” Nighy said. “I just thought Lone is Lone and we’re making a film.”
The actor added, “I’m a very accustomed to an idea of equality between men and women and the idea of women doing any job. And why wouldn’t they? There are more female film directors [now] and there will be more. I can’t see how that won’t happen.”
Check out an exclusive track from the film’s soundtrack, composed by Rachel Portman and currently available from Varese Sarabande, below.
“Their Finest” opens in limited release on Friday, April 7.