Their Finest (and the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, from which this film is drawn) takes its title from one of three speeches given by Sir Winston Churchill after the withdrawal and evacuation of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in France during World War II.
“Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.”
Their Finest is a 1940s period film about the role of propaganda, set within a story of people making a propaganda film. It explores how facts are manipulated to reach the end goal of validating the British government’s decisions and shoring up the public’s support for them, while at the same time making a film that tells a good story. It shows the political pressures that arise, the financial limits (and the seeming never-ending magic pudding of Ministry of War finances), and is set against the washed-out and dreary background of a London being bombed beyond recognition.
Viewed through the lens of modern tenets of the role of women, the film can be viewed as feminist – the protagonist Catrin Cole (played by Gemma Artherton) has followed her socialist artist husband, Ellis (Jack Huston), to London from Wales. She walks into a screen-writing job because all of the men are off fighting. She is to write the women’s perspectives into the script, “the slop” (!), and as she settles into it, she withstands Ellis’ pressure to leave her job and follow him to his next painting location – under the guise of them needing the money, which they do. But she also has found her passion and is not going to give it up. She’s already given up too much.
There are stars aplenty in the supporting roles here – the wonderful Helen McCrory is under-used as an actor’s agent, but still looks glamorous amidst the grey restaurant and hospital scenes; and Bill Nighy, again playing a version of the naughty pop-star figure that brought him to the public eye in Love Actually, steals almost every scene. A bit too much ham, although his scenes with Catrin are moving and genuine. Richard E Grant is subdued but strategic as a senior bureaucrat, and Jeremy Irons is the Secretary for War – very Anthony Eden in prep and presentation. Catrin is supported at work by screenwriter, Buckley (Sam Claflin).
The turning point of the entrance of the United States into World War II and Churchill’s exhortation of that country’s support becomes the focus of the film being produced within Their Finest – the Ministry of War wants a US presence in this film. Catrin and her co-writer Buckley have to find a way of introducing an American “hero” in their Dunkirk-based story, despite there being no US troops in the Dunkirk evacuation. Never let the facts get in the way and all of that …
The background stories in Their Finest help to anchor the viewer – there’s more than enough to keep us interested. And the film they make is ultimately shown to be very effective in manipulating the public’s support for the Churchill government’s actions. However, the real value of Their Finest is in reminding us how and why this is done -and should be a warning in this re-emergent age of fake news.