Their Finest review: Oh! What a lovely war film

A great ensemble cast, featuring Gemma Arterton, Richard E Grant and Bill Nighy, put in a sterling effort in this second World War-set film-within-a-film comedy

Their Finest
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Director: Lone Scherfig
Cert: 12A
Genre: History
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Helen McCrory, Jack Huston, Richard E. Grant, Rachael Stirling, Henry Goodman, Jeremy Irons, Eddie Marsan
Running Time: 1 hr 57 mins

Looking back to the unlovely 2013 flop Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, it hardly seems fair that Hansel (the perfectly capable Jeremy Renner) has subsequently been seen by billions of punters (thank you, Marvelverse), while his more talented co-star Gemma Arterton has failed to set the box office alight, even when she appears in such terrific movies as The Girl with All the Gifts.

Arterton does tremendous work in this second World War drama from Lone Scherfig, bringing a rare vulnerability to a Blitz-era heroine where a lesser thespian might have opted for full-blown Stiff Upper Lip: picture Brief Encounter's Celia Johnson with a Welsh lilt.

Following on from Hidden Figures' recent excavation of overlooked herstory, this adaptation of Lissa Evans' novel Their Finest Hour and a Half examines the role of women on the home front.

During the 1940 bombing of London, talented copywriter Catrin Cole (Arterton) is drafted in by the Ministry of Information’s Film Division to bring a female perspective to their propaganda reels. “Obviously we can’t pay you as much as the chaps,” her supervisor (Richard E Grant) explains matter-of-factly.


Soon after, she's dispatched to interview twin sisters who helped bring soldiers home during the evacuation of Dunkirk. The details, she learns, have been exaggerated, but the story still might make for a decent flick. To this end, she's teamed with Buckley (Hunger Games' Sam Claflin), a bitter screenwriter who counters her ideas with: "Girls don't want to be the hero: they want to be had by the hero."

Despite Buckley's sourness and Catrin's devotion to her ne'er-do-well artist husband (Jack Huston), there's a romantic spark between the co-writers but that may not be enough to save the project from endless 'morale-boosting revisions, a meddling government minister (a Henry V quoting Jeremy Irons), a hilariously preening past-best actor (Bill Nighy, at his most Nighyan) and a talentless American (Jake Lacy) parachuted into the production for political reasons.

The production makes charming use of the no-budget film-within-the-film and of its talented, likeable ensemble. Gaby Chiappe’s touching, good-humoured screenplay adroitly transitions between wartime tragedy, comedy, romantic drama and feminist-friendly themes.

“You know a lot of men are scared we won’t go back into our boxes when this is all over,” observes Catrin’s female colleague, “It makes them belligerent.”

The best Lone Scherfig film since 2009's An Education.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic