Late in “Their Finest,” an aging, arrogant actor turns to the woman who has helped write the screenplay for a somewhat unlikely hit.
It’s due to the absence of others that they have their opportunities, he says, not ruefully but with a matter-of-fact plainness that takes in all that is around them: the death and damage visited upon London during the early stages of World War II.
But what a shame, he continues, to not take advantage of those opportunities.
It’s a hard-won, heartfelt moment in a movie that has a lot of them.
Lone Scherfig (“An Education”), working from Gaby Chiappe’s screenplay, in turn based on Lissa Evans’ novel, has made a war film, yes, and a film about empowerment and romance. But it’s also a movie about movies. Not in a self-congratulatory way, but in a way that shows the essential nature of film and its role in society, particularly one that’s being threatened with extinction.
Catrin Cole (Gemma Artertron, dependably good) is an advertising copywriter who answers an ad for what she assumes is a secretarial job with the Ministry of Information. Instead, thanks to screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) having seen her work in a newspaper that was literally wrapping his fish and chips, she’s hired to write for propaganda films to boost morale.
Actually, Buckley, tells her, she’ll write “the slop” — slang for dialogue for women, which tells you all you need to know about the regard in which women are held in the industry, even with so many men out of the picture. If that doesn’t, this will: Catrin also is told she naturally can’t be paid as much as a man.
Despite this, Catrin is thrilled. Her husband Ellis, (Jack Huston), an artist wounded in a previous conflict, is less enthusiastic. though Obviously some of this is due to jealousy; he can’t get his art career off the ground and scrapes to pay the rent.
It doesn’t take Catrin long to prove her mettle as a writer, and soon she’s sent off to interview twin women who took their father’s fishing boat and helped with the evacuation of Dunkirk. Well, sort of. It sounds downright heroic the way Catrin retells it, anyway.
Roger Swain (Richard E. Grant) is so impressed they decide to make a feature film, not only to boost morale on the home front but, with any luck at all, to entice the United States into joining the war. The good news is they get to shoot in color. The bad news is that they must find a spot for American war hero Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy), whose acting experience consists of having a terrific smile.
It’s all a mess and a step or two away from disaster, but Catrin and Buckley make a good team, despite his constant bickering and complaining that poorly masks his affection.
Bill Nighy is great as Ambrose Hilliard, an old-time star teetering on the edge of being washed up, his ego greatly outweighing his talent. Also outstanding is Helen McCrory as Hilliard’s agent, forced into the job by the realities of war. Those realities are never far out of reach, and the film fits nicely with others like “Hope and Glory” in portraying the British ability to brush off the the dust and rubble of the latest German bombing run and carry on. Scherfig doesn’t gloss over the cost of war. Death constantly resides in the background, except when it thrusts itself into the foreground, as it does without warning.
And yet the cast and crew of the film within the film soldier on. What choice do they have? The filmmakers are like everyone else in war-torn England, trying to make sense out of a life gone insane. What better way to take your mind off your troubles than a movie? If the audience only knew.
Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network
STXfilms/EuropaCorp presents a film directed by Lone Scherfig and written by Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel by Lissa Evans. Rated R (for some language and a scene of sexuality). Running time: 116 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.