It’s 1940 and the picture houses are filled on the regular with bustling, rapt, appreciative audiences, the type that can make even the flattest films a lively and fond viewing memory. Outside the theatres is a crumbling London, one of fear where the next shattering disruption can strike at any moment. The streets are grey, but inside theatres there is gold to be found. “We need more than just fat policemen toppling off ladders” a suited government official says, demanding “authenticity informed by optimism” to keep the people calm and carrying on. The movies can be an escape, but they must also have a conscience, an aim, a call to action as well as comfort.
The purpose of Their Finest is to offer the same self-conscious entertainment, looking behind the scenes of the propaganda machines that churned out films to recruit and uplift with a regularity that’d make modern studio heads spin. At its best movies, it feels like a lost 1940s movie about the movies. Danish director Lone Scherfig has been imbuing this the type of mannered, crowd pleasing British drama that can easily rest on its laurels with more cutting analysis about class since An Education in 2009. Their Finest indulges in and looks reflexively at the role of nostalgia cinema.
The film shines when it’s just that, Gemma Arterton’s Catrin Cole navigating a workforce where she’s merely brought in by balding men who sit in dark screening rooms to give dialogue a requisite ‘feminine’ touch they have deemed so elusive. Eventually, she’s tasked with making the ultimate act of cinematic spin – a film that turns the tale of two spinster sisters failing to bring soldiers back from Dunkirk into one of young women triumphing (optimism is perhaps the more operative ingredient in this case) while nestled in matching pink dresses and rouged cheeks. War effort: +1.
The absurdity of such sugarcoating is not lost on Scherfig, who finds her humour in the fairytale flourishes the producers demand, and in buffoonish peroxide blonde-haired American pilot who proves to be more photogenic than talented. But it’s when the urge for the conventional comes – detours into a romance impeded by tragedy, and a comeback story of an ageing actor (Bill Nighy) – that the film loses its way, sinking into its influences instead of riding above them, and ultimately taking some madulin turns that are less unexpected and grounding than they are angering.
But there’s an irresistible nostalgia here, for a time when one could spend a whole afternoon in a cinema, watching a film over and over again, attention undivided. This half-replica, half-critique may not quite flow and is more ambitious than is typically expected of throwback movies, but the final scenes where audiences shield their eyes and exclaim are satisfying in a way that they fold the film together. Film is folded into life, the true authenticity informed by optimism.