Historical epics have taken it on the chin lately, between the pretty but superficial “Queen of the Desert” and the earnest but inert “The Promise” (which opens in KC on Friday). Solemn and self-important to a fault, both could have used the relaxed, jaunty brio that fills “Their Finest,” a World War II comedy that, despite its light hand, never compromises the grief and loss that lie at its core.
Adapted from Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel, “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” the movie follows a group of screenwriters tasked with creating propaganda for the British war effort in the midst of the London blitz. Recruited after the Ministry of Information spies some of her clever lines in the newspaper, newcomer Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is assigned to write “slop” — otherwise known as women’s dialogue — in films designed to boost national morale.
Leaving her husband, Ellis (Jack Huston), an artist and wounded Spanish Civil War veteran, at home, Catrin plunges into the world of women’s work, propaganda and showbiz, befriending a cynical colleague named Buckley (Sam Claflin). Sneaking some proto-feminist female agency into her storylines, she becomes the trusted script doctor to Ambrose Hilliard, a semi-famous actor who is cast in Catrin and Buckley’s latest production, about the evacuation at Dunkirk.
That vain, rather silly fellow is played by Bill Nighy in a performance crafted to pilfer every scene he’s in. Lanky and spaghetti-limbed, Nighy provides much of the comic relief in “Their Finest,” which lovingly lampoons the cockamamie cavalcade of cinema, especially the sausage-making ritual whereby a real-life story becomes massaged into stirring, audience-friendly entertainment.
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It’s no surprise when Catrin becomes ensnared in a romantic triangle with the two men in her life. What’s genuinely startling is how director Lone Scherfig spikes the romance and comedy with stark moments of war-related violence.
Working from a script by Gaby Chiappe, Scherfig — best known for the winsome coming-of-age drama “An Education” — skillfully keeps the tonal shifts in working order, keeping the story afloat in a series of crisp, sharply focused vignettes awash in clattering typewriters, smoldering cigarettes and other appurtenances of a bygone age.
“Their Finest’s” plot thickens when a government official (played by a beloved actor in an amusing cameo) insists they rewrite the Dunkirk movie with an eye toward drawing America into the war. At this point, Scherfig creates a wonderfully corny, Technicolor movie-within-a-movie, replete with melodramatic deaths, daring rescues, a cute dog and a rather random American character played with period-perfect wholesomeness by Jake Lacy.
In an unexpected twist, much of what’s played for hyperbole in the fictional film presages what happens in “Their Finest,” during which Catrin comes into her own, like so many women of her generation. (“A lot of men are scared we won’t go back into our boxes,” says one female colleague.)
Buoyed by Rachel Portman’s lilting score and a pleasing visual and production design, “Their Finest” is an old-fashioned movie about old-fashioned movies, where sincerity and optimism can often look like kitsch, but in which values are rightfully celebrated, without a trace of condescension. At one point, Ambrose asks Catrin to “back-seed” his storyline by planting information that will make a later moment pay off. Scherfig and Chiappe brilliantly back-seed the final scene of “Their Finest,” which hews to the “morally clean, romantically satisfying” ending that Catrin is under pressure to create.
They may not make movies like they used to, but “Their Finest” is a sprightly, charming, often affecting example of why it’s at least worth making movies about the way they used to make them.
Rated R for some language and a scene of sexuality.