Their Finest is a nostalgic, jolly hockey sticks moving picture. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. “Authenticity informed by optimism” is the name of the game for British propaganda productions concerned with the morale of a blitzed public during World War Two.
Just as gender politics, targeted use of choice vocabulary and the construct of dialogue is crucial to the success of the play within this play which tells of one miraculous Dunkirk rescue, the script of Their Finest – adapted by Gaby Chiappe from a novel by Lissa Evans – bounces along nicely with more than a nudge and a wink to the vagaries of bureaucracy and the cinematic process which feel just as relevant now. “I know only my art,” says Bill Nighy’s scene-stealing ageing thespian Ambrose Hilliard. Never has the utterance of “semolina pudding” ever dripped with so much vigorous yearning and a cocked eyebrow here and there along with his wonderfully dry self-assurance make this one of the British actor’s finest, most uproarious turns in years. Richard E. Grant, with a cameo as Whitehall man Roger Swain, says more with a sideways glance and slight rolling of the eyes than most could with pages of dialogue; Jeremy Irons is his gruff, commanding self as another higher up the food chain; Eddie Marsan is amusing in a buffoonish way as Hilliard’s agent; and Henry Goodman as Hungarian studio head Gabriel Baker is another cast addition.
The relationship that develops between Catrin and Tom, in spite of her marriage to a struggling artist (Jack Huston), is handled with a restrained warmth which avoids any over-sentimentality, the two actors playing the caustic, frustrated friction of circumstance well. All onscreen are very concerned with making a worthwhile picture, a project to make a difference to the war effort and people in dire need of hope. Their Finest by no means reinvents the wheel but in the hands of Scherfig – who previously directed An Education – it looks wonderful, has enough substance to back up its gleaming charm and is a very enjoyable period piece that wears its heart and intentions firmly on its well starched sleeve.