Their Finest, which lives up to its title, registers the resolve, passion and heartache of the early days of World War II--with hardly a Yank in sight. This was an era better known as the Battle of Britain, a full two years before America would enter the conflict. Their Finest neatly fits into the British film subgenre known as "the war at home," blending grit and grief but always making time for a spot of tea (other examples include Mrs. Miniver in 1942 or Hope and Glory in 1987).
Adapted from the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, Their Finest drops its audience into London, circa 1940, when only a narrow strip of sea lay between Great Britain and a German invasion following the collapse of France to the Nazis. Newly elected British Prime Minister Winston Churchill quickly recognized that films produced by the British Ministry of Information depicting stories of the "war at home" would be an important weapon in his arsenal.
Enter a fragile young copywriter. Catrin Cole (the luminous Gemma Arterton), recruited to add a "woman's touch" to the then-dandyish, forgettable flicks churned out by a traditionally stuffy English cinema. Catrin is assigned to give some life and relevance to a particularly laughable script, telling the story of twin sisters who commandeer a tugboat for the war effort. Through her efforts, Catrin evolves the tale of the tug into a more sweeping epic of rescue with thousands of English soldiers being rescued from the battle of Dunkirk. The result bolsters British audiences' morale to an all-time high, and even attracts some much-needed attention from the then-neutral Americans.
Their Finest is a lovely story, but the finest of its fine qualities is the casting—beginning with Arterton (Quantum of Solace, Tamara Drewe) and including Eddie Marsan, Jeremy Irons, Richard E. Grant and a jolly good supporting cast.
Then there's Bill Nighy. Honestly, is there a film featuring Nighy that isn't worth the price of admission? Cast as Ambrose Hilliard, a faded star of British cinema (who tells anyone who will listen that he was once called "the third most popular actor of 1924"), Nighy is spot on. Upon learning he won't be cast as the leading man in the ministry's proposed war epic, Ambrose is a pain in the arse. Ultimately, though, he helps turn the film into something special. In one of his best scenes, when Nighy's character sings Scottish ballad "Wild Mountain Thyme," I double-dare your heart not to melt.
What separates Their Finest from so many other "war at home" films is how it achieves the delicate balance of romantic comedy and the very real violence that rained down on 1940s London. We shouldn't be terribly surprised when we see Danish director Lone Scherfig at the helm of Their Finest—the same artist gave us 2009's An Education, which was another beautifully executed mix of drama, romance and comedy.
Scherfig is one of the planet's most underrated directors. In Their Finest, with its "film within a film," she shows us that, while details matter, if you don't leave room for character and passion—with a dash of sentimentality—you probably won't have much of a movie. In this case, it's a fine balance making for a fine film.