Their Finest is just one of those movies. That sounds like a pretty vague statement, right? But I guarantee that when you see this World War II romantic comedy, you'll know exactly what I mean. Essentially, the latest film from acclaimed director Lone Scherfig (An Education) is prime grade, middle-of-the-road arthouse fare. It's one of those amiable British dramas that your parents are bound to love, a warm, inviting little movie with a cute love story and a whimsical score. Is it really all that good? No, not at all. In fact, it's riddled with problems that drag the movie down pretty badly at times. But is it a bad movie? Nope. It's perfectly fine and hard to outright dislike, a showcase for some good performances and exquisite period detail. With solid-to-mixed reviews out of TIFF and a pickup from EuropaCorp, the future for Their Finest isn't exactly clear. It feels like an Oscar movie on the surface, but I don't see that happening in such a competitive year. No matter the end result, there will be a significant audience for this (mostly) cheery, lighthearted war romp.
Set in London in the 1940s, Their Finest finds the British government at their lowest point in the war so far. The army has just escaped narrowly at the battle of Dunkirk, and the propaganda department is looking for a way to excite and rouse the public in a new way. They're attempting to target women specifically, and they need a story fast. Enter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton). She's a screenwriter stuck writing the "slop," but her talents stretch beyond that. She finds an uplifting story in the tale of two sisters who committed acts of heroism at Dunkirk, and along with fellow writer Tom Buckley (Sam Clafin), Cole begins cranking away at a script that will please the government and the people. Armed with her daring sense of bravery and a crew of washed up actors (led by Ambrose Hilliard, played by Bill Nighy), Catrin will embark on a journey that could change the course of the war. And who knows, she might even fall in love along the way.
The main appeal of Their Finest is certainly the good-spirited cast, led by a fierce performance from Gemma Arterton. The English actress has spent most of her career starring in Hollywood schlock like Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia, and the crushingly disappointing Quantum of Solace, which makes her turn here all the more impressive. She's committed and endlessly likable, a determined heroine that everyone can get behind. Arterton is paired well with Sam Clafin, who plays the prickly, charming Buckley. He's not the most friendly guy in the world, but I can't see anybody not loving this character by the end. Clafin is an actor who exudes likability, and this is a great showcase for him. Finally, if Their Finest sneaks into the Oscar race at all this year, it'll be because of Bill Nighy's performance as the delusional actor, Ambrose Hilliard. He's so dynamic and funny in this movie, and he has some poignant moments that are quite surprising. I didn't love this movie, but I adored Nighy.
Lone Scherfig is clearly a talented filmmaker, and I enjoyed the perspective that she brought to this movie. She's tackling World War II, seemingly the most popular film subject matter in the world, from the perspective of a women, while also injecting a comedic bend. Both viewpoints work tremendously well, and the overarching theme of finding the good in everything is something that I really appreciated and enjoyed. Scherfig moves the film along at a steady pace, doling out little bursts of romance, action, and pathos as the story progresses. The eye for period detail is stunning, and while this is certainly a cheerier war film, the dull, muted nature of the color palette feels incredibly authentic and appropriate. Scherfig's film feels like a progressive throwback, which is quite possibly the best thing I can say about it.
And yet even with all of those terrific elements, I still can't imagine that many people will find Their Finest to be all that memorable of a film. For starters, it feels incredibly long (even though it runs at a mere 110 minutes), which is a problem that nearly causes the downfall of the entire project. It goes in circles for a while before arriving at a conclusion that is a devastating tonal shift, a depressing twist that threw me totally off-guard. It feels contradictory to the entire mood of the film, and it's the point where the movie lost me completely. I won't spoil what that moment is, but I have a feeling that it'll be quite polarizing for audiences. But even with the shocking ending and length issues, all of the problems with Their Finest just flow back to the generic execution. It has a unique perspective, strong performances, and assured direction, but it just can't escape the feeling of "been there, done that."
Their Finest has some nice elements and is ultimately a hard film to dislike, but it's riddled with problems that are both frustrating and tedious in equal measure. Audience reaction at TIFF was warm from what I could tell (I had to dash out during the applause to get in line for Loving), so I imagine that this will play well at the arthouse theaters in the coming months. But in a season dominated by such thrilling, remarkable visions, Their Finest feels too safe, too tonally confused, and too messy to fully recommend. Nobody will hate this movie, but nobody's gonna remember it in the long run.
THE FINAL GRADE: B- (6.5/10)
Image Credit: The Playlist