By Eleanor Ringel Cater
To be absolutely blunt about it, “Their Finest” is one of the finest films of the year thus far.
The title is a play on Winston Churchill’s famous, “This was their finest hour” speech, which he made to Parliament in 1940 as a way to rally the British and strengthen their resolve to finish off Hitler and his Nazis.
The movie takes place around the same time. The Blitz is in full swing and, as Londoners huddle in the Underground to escape the Luftwaffe’s bombs, the British Ministry of Information wants to rev up production of their propaganda pictures.
The purpose is twofold: to improve British morale and to encourage the Americans to enter the war in Europe on the Allied side (Pearl Harbor is still over a year away).
Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a bright Welsh lass newly arrived in London, needs a job to support her artist-lover (Jack Huston). She applies for what she thinks is a secretarial position and finds herself hired as a writer. “Authenticity and optimism,” she quickly learns, is the Ministry’s motto – with the addition, if possible, of a dog.
Well, the dog can take care of itself. Catrin has been brought in to bring a female perspective to “the slop” – as dialogue for women is dismissively called. And slop it is, with housewives nattering on about a “cuppa tea” over the wash, as if the death of loved ones is nothing a “cuppa” couldn’t make all right.
Catrin is soon sent to investigate a story about twin sisters who, using their uncle’s fishing boat, helped British soldiers evacuate Dunkirk. Only, much like reports of Mark Twain’s death, their exploits have been, um, greatly exaggerated.
Still, it’s good enough for the division’s head writer, Tom Buckley (“The Hunger Game’s” Sam Claflin) and production begins on “The Nancy Starling Story” (the Nancy Starling being the fishing boat). The ostensible “name” is Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), an aging matinee idol who is less than ecstatic that he’s been cast as the sisters’ 60-ish drunk uncle (described in the script as “a shipwreck of a man”).
Director Lone Scherfig, who’s probably best known for “An Education,” starring Carey Mulligan and Ewan McGregor, has put together a hugely entertaining picture – one that can’t be simply categorized as a comedy or a romance or even a comedy-romance. Yes, there’s all that, but the movie is also a moving glimpse into the horror of war on the home front. A bomb hits Caitlin’s apartment house and as she stumbles among the rubble, she is initially relieved to see the bodies strewn about are department store mannequins. Until, that is, she comes across a real corpse.
There’s some wonderful stuff about theater folk. The irresistible and invaluable Nighy delivers a hilarious spin on Peter O’Toole’s vainglorious ham in “My Favorite Year.” Nighy’s sense of timing is masterful, as are his scene-stealing bonafides. His bit about an actor’s vocal warm-ups is funnier than most of this season’s “Saturday Night Live.”
Yet Nighy never overwhelms the movie. The sterling ensemble (look for a fabulous Jeremy Irons cameo), Scherfig’s canny direction and Gaby Chiappe’s witty, astute script are simply too strong for that. We’re handed humor and social comment, heroics and tragedy, history and romance. And it all works.