Sunday, September 10, 2017

Their Finest (2017) reminds us of the power of cinema during the worst of times

Their Finest 2017 Movie Review
In cinema and television, the war genre often showcases men departing for the home front, while their mothers and girlfriends waited for them to come home, and not much else. Historically, as their loved ones left for the battlefield, predominantly women, children, and the elderly were left behind to keep the economy going and their spirits up, and fill in empty spaces left behind in the factories, military bases, sports fields, and entertainment industry. Outside of a few different movies and tv shows that come to mind like Land Girls or A League of Their Own, it was a delightful, refreshing surprise to find Their Finest.

During the Blitz in London, a young talented copywriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired by the Ministry of Information to turn "slop" - the women's angle in film - into uplifting and informative morale boosters for home and abroad. Working alongside a fellow screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), she is inspired to weave a tale out of the battle of Dunkirk with a troupe of misfit actors.

Based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, the fictionalized heroine here was inspired by real women behind-the-scenes. Often uncredited for their contributions on-and-off-screen, Their Finest shines a light on important, forgotten figures behind the scenes who were tasked with bringing entertainment to the masses during World War II.

When the world seems to be at its most bleak, it's tough to consider living as normally as possible. As a small-town girl carving a career for herself and becoming an influential voice driving England's propaganda machine, Gemma Arterton leads the movie with a lot of grace, steely grit, and determination. Cole is talented, hard-working, curious, independent, and yes, falls in love, all while bombs are in striking distance and air raids are conducted nearly every night. As she develops her skills as a writer, and learning about love and life through the creative process, her talent gives way for a loving, supporting cast to also find their role in the war - an aging thespian (Billy Nighy), all-American soldier (Jake Lacy), headstrong agent (Helen McCrory), among others. Evans as the original author, and Gaby Chiappe as the screenwriter, creates a refreshing ingenue in the war genre, and it's impressive how the film celebrates a variety of female voices and manages to be an ensemble.
Cinemas were closed briefly at the beginning of the war as there was a fear they'd be dangerous, but they opened them again because people wanted to go."
- Gaby Chiappe
Popularly known from her Oscar-nominated movie An Education, director Lone Scherfig charmingly creates another splendid period drama of a young woman trying to find her place in the world. She's also incredibly inclusive to the grim realities everyone was facing at the time without romanticizing this set of characters and what they were striving to create. Alice Normington's production design, Charlotte Water's beautiful costumes, and  Rachel Portman's score bring a quaint quality, it's refreshing from the violence this genre often depicts.

Sometimes directors and studios get caught up in making these films bloodier and action-packed, believing the conflict will have a bigger emotional impact. But sometimes they miss out on offering other points-of-views of these eras that can reinstate that the human spirit to live and create is also valuable. From cramped offices, sparce tenements and open countrysides, a spark of life and community is trying to muddle through as best as possible. In watching Cole's first project get underway from beginning to end, it's wonderful to see a movie about making a movie celebrating why we still go to the movies: to escape and be entertained, to see another side of humanity, to find order when life seems out of control.

Truthfully, the most perplexing part about Scherfig's film is figuring out what genre it really belongs in. Critics are quick to sell it as a romantic comedy, but I believe it's much more of a typical war-drama. Its aesthetics might be lighter than what we're used to, but the central story focuses on the creative nature of storytelling with World War II primarily used as an important backdrop. Cole's romantic relationships aren't exactly torrid love affairs, nor is the mishaps of filmmaking packed with lol-worthy moments. And the movie isn't a downer in terms of violence or conflict. (Unfortunately, though, for many, loving or hating the movie hinders on one shocking death that's hard to talk about without spoiling. I fell into the former category.) In all, I felt Scherfig strikes a balance between the realistic conflicts of World War II and a light-hearted, tenderness from her cast.

In truly harrowing times, people find a way to come together as communities, uplifting each other's spirits and creating something new that might last longer than they will. It's splendid to be a reminder that despite everything going on around us, we have and can always still use a little cinema magic. Their Finest steps out of the box from what we normally see in the war genre, and with a splendid cast, delivers a swell story displaying no matter what, the show can still go on.

Rating: ★★★
Have you seen Their Finest? What did you think?

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