Catrin (Gemma Arterton) finds herself working with a tetchy colleague (Sam Claflin) in Their Finest. (Supplied: Nicola Dove/Lionsgate Films)
Filmmaking is a gruelling process under peacetime conditions, but it’s quite another thing under the rigid austerity of wartime.
This is the backdrop to Their Finest, a film about filmmaking during the Blitz based on the Lissa Evans novel of the slightly funnier name, Their Finest Hour and a Half.
It stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin, a young Welsh copywriter who’s parachuted in to the movie business to write dialogue for female characters, mockingly referred to as “slop” by a male colleague (Sam Claflin).
Soon Catrin is sharing an office with this tetchy individual to work on a film about the Dunkirk evacuation that must boost British morale and encourage the Americans to join the war.
She finds a newspaper article about twin sisters who sailed their father’s fishing boat to rescue the troops as inspiration, but realising the story has holes, embellishes the truth into a film that audiences would want to see.
Bill Nighy plays an old thespian who doesn’t like to think his glory days are behind him. (Supplied: Nicola Dove/Lionsgate Films)
An acerbic yet charming Bill Nighy plays an over-the-hill actor named Ambrose Hilliard who gets a part in Catrin’s movie as the twins’ drunken father, much to his chagrin.
He’s the kind of old thespian who doesn’t like to think his glory days are behind him, and still dines with his manager (Eddie Marsan) in his favourite Italian restaurant in Soho, chewing through crumbed veal, which, he sadly admits, is not veal in the “pre-war sense”.
Nighy told The Final Cut he enjoyed how Hilliard developed throughout the story.
“Although he is chronically self-absorbed and pompous, he does come to some accommodation with his responsibility to the war effort and to other people,” he says.
“It’s quite nice to play appalling people, and the writing is really good.”
Comparing the wartime solidarity displayed in Their Finest to post-Brexit Britain, Nighy says he imagines the film’s characters would be profoundly disappointed.
“Immediately after the Second World War finished and Germany were defeated … thousands and thousands of British people sent food parcels from England to their recently vanquished enemy,” he says.
“That’s the violent opposite of what’s happening today.”
Not that he blames the voters: “I think they’ve been manipulated by undesirable elements for their own purposes … they’ve been cruelly misled and it’s very unfortunate.”
Catrin’s story — which cleverly navigates between Their Finest’s twin impulses of romance and self-realisation — lends itself to the controlled sentimentality of a director like Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners, An Education).
The Danish director pulls tears and laughs from the material, and touches on social issues that a contemporary audience will appreciate, like the idea of the war as an unprecedented opportunity for women like Catrin to escape the confines of domestic life and achieve something in the wider world.
The dramatisation of wartime filmmaking borders on the absurd, though it’s not inaccurate.
The hiring of documentary filmmakers to make dramas and comedies, as happens in this film, did actually occur, after the Ministry of Information took over the national documentary film unit in 1940 and turned it into a propaganda arm.
Their Finest gives the impression of farce, though it’s not inaccurate. (Supplied: Nicola Dove/Lionsgate Films)
Bureaucrats also influenced the content and writing of scripts, and in Their Finest they deliver a last-minute edict to cast a tone-deaf American soldier (Jake Lacy) in a leading role.
You wouldn’t know, however, that this was the beginning of a golden era for British cinema. Wartime production, despite being compromised, was also artistically and commercially successful.
It was a time when the Rank Organisation became the country’s first vertically integrated distributor-exhibiter and mega-studio, and several masterpieces got made, despite government interference.
Perhaps the best example of this is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite films, released in 1943.
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, its depiction of a sympathetic German character seemed like bad propaganda to Churchill, and he tried in vain to have it stopped.
Churchill thought Colonel Blimp was bad propaganda, but he failed to stop it being made. (Supplied)
One of the reasons cinema was so popular was that Britons — like other Europeans — craved motion pictures as a source of information and escape.
The audience mushroomed, from 19 million a week in 1938 to 30 million by 1945.
“First World War propaganda had mainly been waged by poster art,” writes critic Gerard Gilbert in The Independent newspaper, but “the Second World War was when filmed propaganda came into its own, one of the reasons why the Government was determined to keep the country’s 4,000 or so cinemas open”.
It’s a key moment when, towards the end of Their Finest, Catrin goes to watch her movie with a packed house, sitting between a solider in uniform and a housewife clutching a handkerchief.
To the young screenwriter’s surprise, all the corny lines and hamfisted moments are suddenly incredibly poignant, and therein lies a sort of truth.