At Their Finest: Gemma Arterton and Lone Scherfig's superb wartime drama
‘Their Finest’ warms the heart one minute and breaks it the next. It’s a film of contradictions –a feminist story without a line of ‘feminist’ dialogue; a movie of an uniquely British national moment, directed by a Dane; a comedy set in the horror of the Blitz – trvialised for future generations by the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ meme.
At the heart of Their Finest are four women – the original novelist Lissa Evans, Gaby Chiape, who adapted the screenplay, director Lone Scherfig, and actress Gemma Arterton, who plays Catrin Cole, an amalgamation of dozens of nameless female scriptwriters who worked on British films during World War Two – nameless because so many of them didn’t get a writing credit.
Gemma Arterton points out the feel of Their Finest isn’t “angry” – despite the institutional sexism Catrin faces when she’s first hired to write the “slop” ( the so-called ‘women’s dialogue’) in Ministry of Information films designed to keep British spirits up during the relentless bombing of 1940.
“ I now have all these questions about fake news, the use of propaganda in a negative way. " Lone Scherfig, Director
It’s curious how timely Their Finest feels, Lone Scherfig agrees. Not only is the issue of women being neglected or even derided within the film industry finally prescient, but the plot – Catrin’s asked to contribute to an unashamed piece of propaganda filmmaking to get the Americans to take part in World War Two – suddenly became very relevant the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“I feel like suddenly the film I presented first in Canada and then at the BFI London is now seen as a completely different film in the States,” the directors says. “ I now have all these questions about fake news, the use of propaganda in a negative way. In this way I suppose it was a good thing – cinema was the British way of escaping what was going on. 20 million British people went to the cinema each week in 1939.”
A Danish director who made her name by winning Berlin’s Silver Bear Italian for Beginners nearly twenty years ago, Lone Scherfig has an unerring eye for the nuances of British society – she also made An Education, starring Carey Mulligan. This part of modern history however, was completely unknown to her.
“I was always interested in films from that time – and I also studied what the Germans made during wartime from their side. Why women were suddenly hired at the Ministry of Information to help write these scripts was that the majority of cinemagoers were women, and they felt at the time that their lives were not related to what they saw on screen, which is why wartime cinema in Britain ended up being so much more naturalistic. In Germany it was the other way round – they made rural romantic dramas of women waiting for their men to come home, but in Britain, natural realism worked, and for me, a love of filmmaking was the driver of the project.
"I didn’t want her to have this attitude of ‘I want to be a screenwriter’, it was much more interesting to see her taste blood and get an appetite for it, and watch her journey." Lone Scherfig
While women were allowed to write the ‘slop’ ( or, ‘the nausea’ as it was actually known – which just shows how much the MOI was in the hands of public schoolboys) no female directors emerged in Britain during wartime. How does Scherfig feel about the treatment meted out to Catrin?
“I always felt the aspect of a woman discovering her calling was the main story but not the main punchline,” she replies. “ I wanted the film to be really nuanced, I didn’t want her to have this attitude of ‘I want to be a screenwriter’, it was much more interesting to see her taste blood and get an appetite for it, and watch her journey. In the film, Buckley ( her male collaborator, played by Sam Claflin) is super sexist but her respects her, and wants to learn alongside her. So the film is not as predictable and streamlined as it might have been if I had wanted to go ‘more feminist.’”
How hard is it for women scriptwriters now? Gemma Arterton says she has a best friend who is one, “and she can’t stop working right now,” she laughs. “No doubt it’s down to the UK really doing its bit to promote female-centric films these last two years. If you have a bit of success, you’re on a roll.
“But there are so many I would love to find their voice, and I would like this to inspire in people how much fun it is to write and create. Some of my favourite scenes in Their Finestare when they are brainstorming scenes together. Any writing I’d ever do in future would have to be collaborative because it’s so much fun.”
Scherfig’s experiene of British filmmaking has left her “an indelible Anglophile. We feel very much at home in Britain, we Danes – and we admire the way the British do comedy and tragedy within the same shot. When something happens that is terrible, people start cracking jokes. As a filmmaker, it allows you to look into serious subject matter while taking the syrup out.”
It’s difficult to choose the best of Their Finest – whether it’s the casting, ( Bill Nighy, Helen McRory and Sam Claflin are all at career-bests here) the story that refuses to bow to sentimentality, or even the portrayal of a nation truly, in many ways, at their tea-drinking-in-a-crisis best. Any way you choose, Their Finest is one of the finest films of the year. See it.