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April 2017 | Georgie McGahey

Girls Like Us? Their Finest Film Review

Based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, Lone Scherfig’s drama is a welcome antidote for those of you worn out by the bombastic tentpole blockbusters due for release this month. In place of car crashes and aliens, Their Finest is set against the backdrop of the Blitz, combining the harsh reality of wartime with a witty take on the film industry of the 1940’s. We join Catlin (Gemma Arterton), a copywriter who finds herself writing infomercials for the Ministry of Information. Initially, Catlin believes it to be a secretarial post but wastes no time providing the ‘authentic women’s voice’ her boss Roger Swain (Richard E. Grant) is looking for, proving herself competent and capable.  

Her talent is quickly noticed by screenwriter, Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Catlin is seconded to write the ‘slop’, aka women’s dialogue, for a feature film based around two female protagonists. The cinema going public want realism but the ministry also know they have to provide optimism during wartime as London is bombarded by bombs, so the pressure is on. 

For me, there is no finer movie than a movie about making movies. Living in Oblivion to Swimming with Sharks, The Player to A Cock and Bull Story. There is an immense amount of fun to be had from first AD’s portrayed as shouty, grumpy megalomaniac's to actors so emotionally fragile that a breeze could blow them over. There is also a nod to the filmmaking process of the 40's, some early SFX work as warships are painted on perspect to recreate Dunkirk, inexperienced best boys - who have escaped conscription for one reason or another - shine 10k’s into the eyes of the cast and the writers re-draft the script at a rate of knots, due to interference from external sources. The addition of the American RAF airman, Carl Lundbeck, who can’t deliver his lines without giving an award winning smile, might be some of the funniest moments of the film. If you love films about filmmaking, Their Finest truly delivers in this respect, with Bill Nighy bringing to life the faded screen star, Ambrose Hilliard, no longer able to play the hero; coming as quite a shock to him when he is handed the script!  

Ultimately though this a film about a capable woman who is following her own destiny and there's real depth to the character of Catlin. She is strong enough to run away to London with Ellis but not strong enough to bear the ridicule of living with a man to whom she is not married; so buys herself a wedding ring in Woolworths. She picks her job over Ellis and knows deep down that he will betray her during her absence, but it’s worth taking the risk. Running hot on the heels of stories driven by female leads, Catlin is the next in a line of strong, capable characters who can carry a film.  

Catlin's story, though fiction, has much basis in the truth of women during WW2. Women took up the slack and got to work in factories, fields and public services. They were operating tractors, driving ambulances and putting out fires. For women who relished the opportunity to take on extra challenges, in addition to being mothers, this is a truly fascinating era of women’s liberation and the film pays homage to that. With women fulfilling more prominent positions men have no idea how to react, Buckley's instant dislike of Phyl (Rachael Stirling) is palpable, as he believes her to be a spy from the ministry. Not used to having their opinions or views challenged the men are “scared they (women) won’t go back in their box” once the war is over. The scene between Swain and Catlin, where he casually remarks that they “can’t pay you as much as the chaps” is laughable, but it only takes a moment to then question how far have we actually come? Isn’t that exactly the debate Jennifer Lawrence raised when she and Amy Adams were paid considerably less than their male co-stars in American Hustle? Lawrence's failure to negotiate meant there was no financial parity between genders, despite shared screen time. Jessica Chastain has also openly spoken about turning down roles if the production won’t talk money straight away. In her experience, producers wait for the male lead to confirmed his sum to find out how much they can then offer her.

It’s been a commonly held belief that films about female characters don’t pull in the big bucks, however, 2016 mainstream films featured a host of strong female leads; Rogue One, Arrival, Hidden Figures, to name but a few. Films with a strong female lead produce great box office revenue, and many people seem to forget that audiences are actually very sophisticated. If the story is appealing, be that Wonder Woman or Toni Alderman, people will take the time to watch what speaks to them.  Despite the increase in strong female leads, however, a report from the Centre for the Study of Women in Film and TV states that women were only behind 7% of the top 250 films of 2016 in Hollywood. That is 2% less than the year before! So what about women behind that camera?

Despite there being a host of female directors I could name, the recent figures seem startling. 2017 looks set to bring some big budget stories to the screen from directors, who also happen to be women. Wonder Woman directed by Patty Jenkins, Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife and Underworld: Bloodwars directed by Anna Foerster but considering the sum of films produced over a year, the output from female filmmakers working at the top end of the film industry is on the low side. Organisations in the UK such as CineSisters, Reel Angels and, of course, Women in Film and TV provide a network, and platform, for this debate in the UK. Only via addressing the issue head on, can filmmakers begin to hold the industry accountable. 

Lone Scherfig, director of One Day and the critically acclaimed An Education has created a wonderful film in Their Finest. Her flair for romantic comedy and characters that resonate with an audience are all embedded within the film, which could have been a lesser piece of work in another's hands.  It's beautifully shot by Sebastian Blenkov, great script by first timer Gabby Chiappe and some fantastic performances by Gemma Arterton in particular, who brings such warmth and strength to the character of Catlin that I keenly felt her disappointment at the end of this film. Bill Nighy is predictably Bill Nighy, but that works, when has it not?

Their Finest is out in cinemas on 21st April.

Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment Motion Picture Artwork © 2017 STX Financing, LLC. All Rights Reserved. PHOTO CREDIT – NICOLA DOVE

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