T.S. Eliot wasn’t thinking of movies when he wrote that April is the cruelest month, but it applies.
It’s the season for dumping last year’s leftovers, and a presummer clearance event for titles of dubious commercial potential. So — to borrow the language of Eliot’s countrymen — prepare to be gobsmacked by the terrific British import Their Finest, a smart, funny, and moving period story of a woman (Gemma Arterton) who stumbles into a job writing WWII propaganda movies.
War is raging, Britain is losing, the men are called away, and Mrs. Cole, as she’s called, applies for what she thinks is a secretarial post at the Ministry of Information that turns into an assignment writing “slop” (dialogue among female characters) for the ministry’s filmmaking wing.
The minister (Richard E. Grant) is looking for stirring material to rally the country’s sagging spirits — “authenticity with optimism,” he calls it. Mrs. Cole’s skill with slop becomes key when the filmmakers spot a newspaper account of two spinster sisters who borrow their dad’s fishing boat and cross the channel to rescue British troops at Dunkirk.
Mrs. Cole is sent to interview the women, and a great scene (one of many) follows: The women are desperately uncinematic and painfully shy, and the newspaper account is all wrong. But the three women connect, and she sees things that a man may have missed.
The slop, she senses, is the movie. Most of the 30 million British citizens attending the cinema each week are women. They need their own stories. And properly told, these stories would inspire everyone. (It’s not incidental that Their Finest is written, directed, and scored by women. It’s not a stunt either that Lone Sherfig, Gaby Chiappe, and Rachel Portman have long excelled in the still-male world of filmmaking).
Their Finest has screwball-comedy fun showing how the clever Mrs. Cole skillfully navigates the all-male culture of the film department – the men want to lard the story with stock male heroes, and she fights deftly to protect “her” characters. The most amusing obstacle — Bill Nighy as a vain has-been star, now crammed into a supporting role. (Jeremy Irons also has a vivid two minutes as a stuffy aristocratic minister who wonders why Americans think England is run by stuffy aristocrats.)
Most rewarding, though, is the interplay between Arterton and Sam Claflin as head screenwriter Tom Buckley. It’s his ego that must be modified to account for Mrs. Cole’s growing influence over the project, which increases apace with her ever-more-obvious talent. This is a movie about unsubtle screenwriting with a subtle script – it trusts Claflin and Arterton to project the subtext hidden in the words.
We see, through Claflin, that Buckley is at once threatened and thrilled -- Mrs. Cole is his discovery, his protégé, then his equal, and of course he’s falling in love with her.
And of course Mrs. Cole is married — to a struggling painter (Jack Huston) whose brittle support for her work starts to crack as she begins to see it as a career. This seems like a nod to melodrama, but it’s more complex – their relationship suggests one art form giving way to another.
He’s seeking a commission for an exhibition of paintings that comparatively few will see, that in any case will be hard-pressed to summon the galvanizing power of a well-made film (or song, as we see in one lovely scene), which Mrs. Cole’s slop is turning out to be.
It’s a treat to watch the movie-within-a-movie come together — the process is often funny, but the tragic attrition of the war on Londoners is on display, and its shadow creeps over the characters as Their Finest moves toward its elegant conclusion (you’ll be glad the ministry hired a documentary director for the job).
We see bits of the finished film, but we also see rapt British audiences watching it. We see the filmmakers themselves amused by the effect their movie has had, but also awed by it — in the chaos and cynicism of making a propaganda movie, something useful and even honorable has occurred.
A woman has been given a chance to find her voice, and she has given the country a reason to endure another day or week of bombing. It's a movie about battles worth fighting.