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Their Finest, a bittersweet WWII romance, treads lightly around the ethics of film propaganda

Screenwriters become war heroes in the middle of the Blitz.

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest
Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest
Nicola Dove
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

There is more than one way to fight a war. Making movies, for instance.

Propaganda films proliferated on all sides of the conflict during World War II, seeking to sway public opinion toward the government’s position and bolster morale. In Britain, the effort was centralized in the Ministry of Information, which was created and then disbanded during both World Wars. The Ministry’s job was to regulate news and monitor the public mood as the war raged on, shaping coverage to keep spirits up. And weary citizens — with their loved ones fighting the war and their homes under assault from bombings, sometimes nightly — were turning to the movies for escape.

Their Finest is a fictionalized, bittersweet drama about making movies during the Blitz, and it has all the romance, tragedy, and humor of the films its characters are creating. It sidesteps some thorny ethical territory by the simplicity of its aim — and the result is a pleasure to watch.

Their Finest is about making a movie to boost morale during World War II

It’s 1940, and the Blitz is on, with Londoners enduring heavy air raids nightly and trying to keep their chins up during the day. Catrin (Gemma Arterton) and Ellis (Jack Huston) have moved from Wales to London to make a life for themselves, but under the conditions it’s becoming increasingly hard to make enough to pay the rent — especially because Ellis is a painter whose work is deemed too bleak by the government for official use, which would be the best way to earn a living.

But Catrin, responding to an ad at the Ministry of Information, finds herself with a job writing for “informationals,” the short, chipper public service announcements programmed before the main feature at the cinema that inform moviegoers how to properly hide in a bombing raid or encourage them to grow food in the backyard. Catrin has a knack for writing, and the Ministry needs a woman writer to appeal to the female audience. (Naturally, the hiring manager tells her, he can’t pay her as much as the men.)

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest
Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest.
Nicola Dove

Meanwhile, the filmmaking arm of the Ministry is frustrated with their films thus far, wanting more pictures that embody a spirit of “authenticity and optimism.” They need patriotic tales of heroism, starring soldiers and ordinary people, and they need them fast. And as more women enter the workforce to fill the gaps left by men at war, the Ministry realizes that they need female-focused stories, too.

Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) is tasked as a head writer on the project, and having spotted Catrin’s work, he brings her onto the project (for which she demands better wages, a boon for the rent bill). At first she’s there to write the “slop,” as Buckley puts it to her — the “girl talk, woman’s dialogue, woof woof” — but it soon becomes clear Catrin’s talents far exceed just writing words for female characters to say.

Gemma Arterton in Their Finest
Gemma Arterton in Their Finest.
Nicola Dove

Catrin and Buckley latch onto a true story: At Dunkirk, ordinary citizens rescued soldiers in their fishing boats, and two in particular, a pair of sisters, would make a great story.

Of course, in the writing room, the story gets revised to be more suitable for the screen (film is “real life with the boring bits cut out,” Buckley tells her). Actors are added, including popular but aging movie star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy). Catrin and Buckley write like mad during the day and hide from the bombs at night and, eventually, they get a screenplay, which they call The Nancy Starling after the sisters’ boat.

Then they go off to the coast in Norfolk, to shoot, away from the bombs. Catrin and Buckley grow closer as the war wages on and the movie shoots. But the course of true love, movie-making, and war-winning never did run smooth.

Their Finest doesn’t have an ear for moral complexity, but it’s still lovely

Their Finest is based on Lissa Evans’s 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, and it seems like the kind of story that improves in the transition from page to screen — we get to see the film they’re making (which is both heartwarming and pleasantly campy) and how they make it.

Arterton and Claflin have a genuinely affecting chemistry, Nighy is a reliable delight, and the supporting cast is a who’s-who of British actors it’s always a pleasure to see pop up on screen: Jeremy Irons, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, and more. Jake Lacy, too, is ideally cast as the American soldier that Catrin and Buckley have to belatedly write into the script in order to encourage the Americans to join the war.

With a confident Lone Scherfig (An Education) at the helm, Their Finest feels like one of the good old-fashioned movies it remembers fondly: fiercely cheerful, funny, sad, and ultimately hopeful.

But it’s impossible to watch Their Finest without considering how very meta it is. It’s a movie about making propaganda, encouraging rattled and devastated people to stay supportive of the war effort. And this film was itself developed by BBC Films, the feature film branch of the publicly funded BBC.

Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy in Their Finest
Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy in Their Finest.
Nicola Dove

There’s a huge, huge gap between the functions of the BBC and the Ministry of Information, of course. But it’s hardly surprising that the movie views the period through a romantic lens; this is a tale of artists’ heroism largely uncomplicated by any ethical or moral dilemmas (at least as far as The Nancy Starling goes). Whether it’s defensible to tweak the details for maximum audience impact and attempt to influence public opinion through art is not a question the movie wants to explore.

Luckily, the script and direction are strong enough to keep it from veering into sentimentality too much; the Blitz is no joke, and there are some moments of true grief throughout the film. For the most part, it manages to delicately balance the tendency to romanticize the period with recognizing the toll that being under siege takes on people, both collectively and individually. And in the character of Catrin, it criticizes the casual sexism of the period that assumed women were of limited use in men’s work, whether it was the war effort or movie-making.

Still, it’s strange to watch Their Finest and wonder whether it’s functioning, even a little, as a kind of propaganda film of its own. Not that it’s particularly unwelcome. But it always feels a little weird when Hollywood makes movies about its own heroism (see Argo), and it’s not different when the British filmmaking industry gets in on the act. If nothing else, there’s a lack of self-awareness involved in presenting the story uncritically to a modern audience, most of whom didn’t live through the Blitz.

That said, Their Finest is a lovely and stirring film, the kind of movie that reminds the audience that bravery comes in many forms — sometimes in ordinary people with rickety fishing boats, and sometimes in poor and plucky writers with a knack for writing screenplays. You can call that propaganda, but it also makes for a good story.

Their Finest opens in theaters on April 7.

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