Their Finest – movie review

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.

Gemma Arterton and Sam Clafin Photo by Nicola Dove-Nicola Dove - © Nicola Dove

Sam Clafin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest (image Nicola Dove) 

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.

Do the sins of the fathers revisit the sons?

The Place Beyond the Pines is a mesmerising film; a long, convoluted story of cross generational responsibility, corruption, the break down of moral codes, the value of an education and the connections it can offer, and the importance of both apology and absolution before things can move on.

Told in two parts over a 17 year period, the credibility of the story line is sometimes stretched.  But mostly, this saga of the impact of fathers’ behaviour on their children’s lives is moving and powerful.

Ryan Gosling plays a heavily tattooed, carny motor bike rider, Luke, a drifter and a grifter, who is surprised when he learns that he is the father of a one year old son, conceived a year earlier when the carnival had been in Schenectady (New York State).  Wanting to do the right thing by the baby’s mother, Romina (Eva Mendes) and possibly yearning for some kind of stability himself, the almost illiterate “Handsome Luke” decides to stay in town to get to know his son and to try to provide for him and his mother.

Gosling Mendes

But in the year gone by, Romina has taken up with Kofi, and she lives with the baby and her own mother in Kofi’s house.  Luke is not welcome, despite Romina’s feelings for him, and his best efforts fall short of his aim of providing a stable income that can buy things for the baby.

Luke comes across the greasiest of grease monkeys, Robin, played by Ben Mendelsohn.  They meet after Robin sees Luke riding his motorcycle at breakneck speed through the pine forest.  They race along together, reminiscent of the forest chase scenes in The Empire Strikes Back, with branches and leaves thwacking the cameras as they speed by.  But there are no special effects here.  Just full throttle speed, dare devil moves and a recklessness born from a tough-arsed attitude to life. Needless to say, Robin soon develops plans for Luke’s riding skills and those plans are on the wrong side of the law.

The subsequent story arc leads us to newby beat cop, Avery Cross, played by Bradley Cooper.  Handsome, clean, fit, Avery is injured in the line of duty and called a hero, then learns first hand how easily others’ corruption can trick you, catch you off guard, and reel you in.  Avery turns to his judge father for advice, for whom he has previously expressed some disdain.  Together they plot a way for Avery to take on the corruption head first, and he goes on to build a political career that leads in time all the way to the top.

The compare and contrast of the two story lines is simple – Avery has privilege and education versus Luke has poverty and homelessness, and all of the attendant social and emotional baggage in both stories is played out.  But when the two sons of these men meet up at school, the third act of the film (in itself a free-standing story) seems to be showing us just how the sins of the fathers and mothers are visited on their children, despite their best efforts for this not to be the case.

Avery’s son, AJ is a selfish, manipulative thug, who only knows how to have a good time.  Jason, the son of Luke, has grown up without knowledge of his father (although Kofi does a good Darth Vader impression – “I am your father” – and it’s true – he was there when Jason was born and has stayed with Romina, and had another child with her).  Regardless, Jason goes looking for answers about his father, and after learning the story, the denouement sees him swapping his pushbike for a new motorbike. Although he’s never been on one before, his natural, inherited talent sees him through.  He heads off beyond the pines.

The establishing shots of Schenectady’s town hall clock surrounded by pine forests place the story and are used several times.  The pines are shown surrounding the town, and bad things happen in that pine forest – it’s almost primordial, reminiscent of when “monsters” lived in the deep, dark woods.  Avery refuses to go deep into the forest with a colleague due to his fear of what might happen to him in there. And later on he again ends up in the forest, in danger.

On taking responsibility for his actions, though, he is able to escape, and to move on in his life, both in terms of his relationship with AJ, in which is he absent much of the time, and also in relation to the actions that affected Luke.  This seems to break the nexus, and allows Jason to move on, beyond the pines.

The acting is strong in this film, and it’s possible to believe in the characters and their motivations, despite the convoluted storyline. The women’s roles are minor – this is about boys and their dads, is blood thicker than water, what do we inherit and what do we learn, what makes a good dad, and ultimately, at what time do we take responsibility for our actions, accept the past, shake off its consequences, and move on to the next phase.  Avery tries to protect Jason, but is the apology he offers the key that unlocks Jason’s future? Will it be bright and shiny beyond the pines?

Further info: http://focusfeatures.com/the_place_beyond_the_pines