Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest is a handsomely mounted period drama set in wartime, specifically London during the Blitz. It’s also a film about filmmaking, one that celebrates the power of art to bring audiences together. For some, that may trigger memories of recent films like The Artist, Birdman, and La La Land, middling works bestowed with temporary false importance by an industry that can’t resist celebrating itself, but Their Finest narrowly escapes the feeling of insularity that can come with that type of film, and by virtue of downplaying the moviemaking aspects in order to focus on a woman’s growing self-awareness and empowerment in a male-dominated industry.
This woman, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), is an advertising copywriter who’s hired by the British Ministry of Information to write convincing female dialogue for wartime-propaganda films, and who gradually discovers a talent for screenwriting she didn’t know she had. Some of Their Finest’s richest scenes revolve around Catrin’s intense brainstorming sessions with fellow screenwriters Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter) as she attempts to infuse her own perspective into the project they’re working on, achieving minor victories that, for her, feel like major triumphs.
Those scenes also derive their worth from the fact that it’s rare for films about filmmaking to dramatize writing as a communal process; Catrin isn’t seen working by herself on what’s usually a solitary activity, but rather her creative energies bounce off of Tom and Raymond’s own. As for the film’s cinema-historical background, many of Britain’s most celebrated filmmakers—among them Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, David Lean, and Carol Reed—emerged during the World War II era, and Their Finest generates some of its eye-opening frisson from its methodical depiction of the process of making a particular stripe of war-themed motion picture, right down to its use of international celebrities to try to appeal to non-U.K. audiences.
The fact that Catrin discovers herself in the midst of a by-committee propaganda production rather than an independent artistic endeavor is a bit of cognitive dissonance that another filmmaker might have milked for some sort of delicious irony. Scherfig, though, treats the material with the muted tastefulness that suppresses even the most roiling passions. During one scene, when a higher-up at the Ministry of Information demands a more overtly passionate romantic ending to appeal to the American audience’s taste for melodrama, viewers might wish that Their Finest had been injected with a similar energy. The film’s cautious aesthetic is unfortunately matched at times by its content, especially when the drama eventually circles around Catrin’s budding romance with Tom, forsaking a measure of its feminist bona fides in order to suggest that she can’t be happy without a man in her life.
Even when it threatens to become too studied and conventional, though, the film usually finds a way to get viewers back on its side, whether with a wry line reading from a scene-stealing Bill Nighy—as an actor who’s initially reluctant to accept that he’s getting too old to play romantic leads—or a plot turn that reminds us of its feminist backbone. The film may be about a woman who becomes empowered, but there’s a welcome honesty in the way such personal and societal progress is dramatized not so much in broad gestures, but in discreet steps that will eventually lead to grander advances beyond the borders of this particular story. By maintaining an intimate focus on Catrin’s personal triumphs and refusing to fall into heavy-handed polemicism, Their Finest becomes a more effectively inspiring tale as a result.