Film review – Their Finest (Lone Scherfig, 2016)

You may look at the premise of Their Finest and, coupled with the cast, assume that the film is a lighthearted romp with its aim directly at those to whom World War II is a trip down memory lane rather than a history lesson. It’s an assessment that isn’t wildly wide of the mark, but there’s more substance here than meets the eye.

The story is about a woman rising up against industry stereotypes and an oppressive partner to become a great screenwriter for propaganda war films. That woman is Catrin Cole (Gemma Arteton) and the film-within-a-film depicts two sisters’ efforts in the miraculous evactuation of stranded Allied troops from Dunkirk beach. Central to this film is the drunken Uncle Frank, set to be portrayed by Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), whilst the film is co-written with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Other minor roles include Jeremy Irons as the Secretary of War and Richard E. Grant as a studio executive.

Claflin and Arteton

Despite a feeling that a romantic subplot was going to undo all the hard work put in by a female lead being expertly guided by a female director, it was a wise choice to make her feelings for co-writer Tom serve a purpose to inspire Catrin’s career rather than making her career integral to her romantic endeavours. In this way, her feelings towards her co-writer is simply a character-building device.

There was a brief moment where I felt they were throwing away a really interesting character in her faux-husband Ellis Cole (Jack Huston). This is a man who has been injured in a previous battle and thus cannot join the war effort, nor can he earn a consistent living to support himself and Catlin. His failings are that he cannot bring himself to accept his partner’s financial support. In 2017 this is likely to stir an element of frustration amongst the feminist cinema-goers, which is a perfectly reasonable response given this remains such a hot topic. However, if one really tries hard to imagine the emotions of a man suffering from inadequacy-related depression in the height of World War II, I can’t help but feel that his side of the story wasn’t explored enough. His eventual lack of faithfulness was the easy route out of a cul-de-sac.

Bill Nighy’s role was satisfyingly gripping. His portrayal of an older actor struggling to be taken seriously following earlier successes is something that must resonate with many in the industry. Nighy is consistently and effortlessly funny in every role he tackles and that must, in an unusual way, be quite restrictive for his role choices. Here he is very much light relief but he plays a pivotal role in the final act when it comes to reasoning with a depressed Catlin. It’s a heartbreaking scene that really stands out as a centrepiece for both character arcs.

For all the accuracies in the costumes, scenery, colour choices, music and tone, the whole film would be nothing without an excellent performance from Arteton. This is a role that is specifically targeted to resonate with women who have had to rise up against criticism from men at home and at work throughout their lives. 

From Gemma Arteton all the way back to novelist Lissa Evans, the women involved with bringing this tale to life have left their mark. Women creating high quality cinema was a surprising success in 1940 and it’s a shame that the industry still feels the same way almost eighty years later. 

Film review – Dad’s Army (Oliver Parker, 2016)

Dad’s Army is one of the best-regarded sitcoms to ever come out of Britain. A film would always have two almost certain outcomes: making a lot of money and not living up to the public’s fond memories of the original series. In this sense Oliver Parker’s 2016 effort doesn’t disappoint.

This film adaptation stars Toby Jones as Captain Mainwaring, the leader of a Home Guard [1] platoon the fictional Walmington-on-Sea in England during World War II. His platoon consists of Sergeant Wilson (Bill Nighy), Lance Corporal Jones (Tom Courtenay), Private Godferey (Michael Gambon), Private Pike (Blake Harrison), Private Walker (Daniel Mays) and Private Frazer (Bill Paterson). They are being visited by glamorous journalist Rose Winters (Catherine Zeta Jones), there to report on the Home Guard.

The authenticity of this film is, to the untrained eye, fantastic. The colour washes and costumes give it the feel that you genuinely are watching a Home Guard operation in 1944. There is a clear attention to detail that has gone into this and the film is much better for it.

The plot, generally, is enjoyable. It is pitched at the right level between the series and what is expected of a big-budget film. It puts the Home Guard into a potentially larger plot that is at the centre of the war efforts.

Where this film majorly falls down is the humour, or lack thereof. The writing was on the wall with the trailer, which felt a little flat. Unfortunately, most of the best material was featured in one or more of the trailers, and between these moments the humour was lightly sprinkled in a way that may bring a smile to the audience members’ faces but never succeeds in delivering a belly laugh. In this sense it has been a huge failure in comparison to the original series.

The actors do a wonderful job impersonating the original cast members, to scarily uncanny levels. This is perhaps the only time when all these stars will grace the screen together and it is a real letdown that the material they’ve been served is so underwhelming.

A massive disappointment.

[1] During World War II, those unable to serve on the front line provided a second line of defence on British home soil. Platoons were generally made up of those too old or too young to serve in battles, individuals with injuries or illnesses that prevented them from being on the front line and those with professional occupation that were exempt from joining the front line war effort. It was a significant operation, consisting of around 1.5m volunteers.