First of all – I’ve finally finished my dissertation – an exploration of the motivations for writing and publishing a personal narrative of the First World War. It was such fun to write (mostly) and covered narratives from Douglas Haig to Flora Sandes, alongside Robert Graves and Cecil Lewis. However, I am super happy that it’s finished so I can now focus on revision and get back to blogging a little bit more regularly. I wondered briefly how I’m going to stretch out the lifespan of this blog beyond the centenary, as I imagine that interest will probably wane, alas, but that’s a question for another day. As a reward to myself for finally finishing my dissertation, I took my nana out today to go and see the film Their Finest and thought a quick review of the film would be a nice comeback to my blog (it is WWII era, but sssh!)
The film is adapted from a novel by Lisa Evans entitled Their Finest Hour and a Half, and stars Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy, amongst other famous faces. It tells the story of the creation of a full length propaganda film created by the Ministry of Information about two sisters who take a fishing boat to Dunkirk. Gemma Arterton is Catrin, the only female writer in a team otherwise consisting of two men who regard women’s dialogue as ‘slop.’ The film within a film aspect clearly highlights the differences between the order of a film set and the chaos on the streets of London. There are moments where it is almost a love letter to the cinema of the Second World War, gently self referential but never excluding the audience – rather inviting them inwards to the same world it occupies. It tells of the enrapturing power of film at a time when there were incredibly few other escapes available.
Gemma Arterton is wonderful as Catrin – she’s not one of those female characters who marches in and completely overturns the status quo in an entirely unbelievable manner – she is eminently believable which makes all the difference. Claflin is equally arresting as her colleague, Tom Buckley, with whom she spars and jokes as they work together to produce a film that will lift the hearts of the public and yet still remain true. Their scenes together are full of both pathos and comedy with only one or two straying into the realm of cheese. A scene wherein they argue beneath a ‘bombers moon’ errs rather on the side of cliche, but in such a lovely film that otherwise manages successfully to paint the blitz without too much saccharine, the odd moment is forgivable – especially when it comes to emotions.
One scene which stood out was one where Catrin is caught away from a shelter as the bombs begin to fall – she huddles beside a shop window for cover until the planes pass. On rising to her feet, amidst the smoke, she sees the shillouettes of bodies and her natural reaction is horror, upset, mounting distress even. On noticing they are mannequins, her upset changes to laughter but then sharply again to horror as she comes face to face with the body of a young woman who she followed out of the tube station moments earlier. Catrin bends at the waist and retches, silhouetted in an archway against the cold light of evening. A comic moment turned abruptly to the real horror which confronted people on a daily basis – not brushed over or ignored, but presented to the audience without rose tinted glasses. There are other, similar moments that carefully place the actual effects of the war to the forefront – when Tom has died, Catrin is not suddenly paralysed by grief, but nor does she jump straight back into her work – the film gives her space to react and to showcase that reaction – mourning, tears and all.
Bill Nighy is magnificent as Ambrose Hilliard, an aging actor who’s best roles appear to be behind him, cajoled into a role with the MoI by his agent. His moments of arrogance are comic, but there is weight behind his frustration when he remarks that the war has taken the cream off the top – leaving everyone with only rancid curds. Though he storms from a restaurant in this scene, it is clear he is remarking on more than the dilapidated food rations available.
It’s a gorgeous film, a colour palette of greys, blues and creams gives it a muted look without ever being washed out or dull – a palette often used in many films set in the Second World War – The Deep Blue Sea and Atonement are two which come to mind. It does work well however, contrasted with the brighter moments when the crew are filming at the seaside.
There are funny moments (in the cinema where I was, laughter was audible on many occasions), touching moments and an ending that I didn’t expect but one which fits better I think, than a traditional happy ending. Overall, for me, it was a perfectly lovely way to spend an hour and a half. I can’t comment on historical accuracy per se, as I know little about the day to day workings of the Ministry of Information, but I certainly recommend, if only for the wonderful performances and the sight of a Second World War film, mostly free of schmaltz.