The comforting analog clack of typewriter keys is a leitmotif in Their Finest, Lone Scherfig’s slight but appealing adaptation of Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half (who knows why the subject of the original title was confusingly cast aside). In this tale of British filmmaking during World War II, Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a plucky young woman who finds work as a propaganda film screenwriter. The task of writing these scripts is presented grandiosely: Catrin receives the directive “We need a story to inspire a nation.”
Stories to inspire a nation have long made up a sizable percentage of Hollywood schlock, and Their Finest deserves credit for exploring a woman’s role in such an effort, as too many WWII films are strictly masculine stories in which women exist as quick-study love interests. Catrin is more than that, though her romantic trajectory is utterly predictable. She’s intelligent and witty, delivering her script ideas in a pleasant singsong lilt. A woman screenwriter at this time was considered a novelty, and while the film addresses this (she’s hired to capture “the feminine experience”), Catrin’s struggles never play like struggles: Their Finest makes the process of writing look easy. Typewriter keys get clicked, a paper of two is balled up in frustration and soon enough — poof! — a script appears.
The best moments are those that lovingly show the process of filmmaking. In one scene, set on a beach, a large piece of painted glass disrupts our field of vision until the shot pulls back and reveals it’s a piece of the set designed to create a cinematic illusion. Such visual invention is mostly kept to a minimum, though, as Scherfig’s aesthetic is in keeping with British period pieces of the last few years. Like The Imitation Game and The King’s Speech before it, the film largely relies on a muted blue-gray color palette as a means of tastefully conveying the past. Also like those films, Their Finest is best seen in a matinee with family, for it’s easy to watch and eminently tasteful. There’s a bit of comic relief in the hoary gestures of Bill Nighy, clearly enjoying himself as he plays Ambrose Hilliard, the star of the film within the film. Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Irons make welcome appearances as higher ups — Their Finest is nothing if not quite British.
The combined charms of Britishness and nostalgia often prove a potent blend for American moviegoers, but Their Finest could have delivered something more. The lead screenwriter, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), is bespectacled and sensitive, and he and Catrin engage in workplace banter that inevitably leads to a kiss. The specter of war is always present, of course, and loss too becomes inevitable. The fruit of Tom and Catrin’s labor may not be particularly good, but a late scene in which Catrin finally watches her film with an adoring crowd is surprisingly poignant: The colors on the screen within the screen are a welcome burst of brightness, and the audience is rapt. In the world of Their Finest, at least, propaganda works.