Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Helen McCrory, Eddie Marsan, Jake Lacy, Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, Henry Goodman, Claudia Jessie, Stephanie Hyam, Natalia Ryumina, Jeremy Irons
Written by: Gaby Chiappe, based on a novel by Lissa Evans
Directed by: Lone Scherfig
MPAA Rating: R for some language and a scene of sexuality
Running Time: 117
Date: 04/21/2017
IMDB

Their Finest (2017)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

War Craft

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on Lissa Evans's novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, the new movie Their Finest tells the story of a Welsh woman, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), who becomes a screenwriter for English WWII propaganda movies. At first, she gets the job because she can write "slop" (a.k.a. "girl talk"), but it turns out she's every bit as talented as her male cohorts, and they know it.

The movie-within-a-movie, based very loosely on the true story of two sisters attempting to rescue soldiers from the beaches at Dunkirk, goes through many changes. Various departments and studio heads and actors, etc., all have ideas about how the movie should go and what it should say, and Their Finest tracks these changes with incredible believability.

It reminded me, favorably, of Julie Salamon's indispensable book, The Devil's Candy, about the behind-the-scenes travails of Brian De Palma's ill-fated The Bonfire of the Vanities; the difference here is that Catrin manages to fix all the problems at the story level.

At the same time, Catrin slowly falls in love with her aggravating co-worker Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), even though she has left a significant other, a struggling painter, at home. And during everything, London is continually bombed, buildings collapsing willy-nilly, with the occasional casualty.

Each and every actor here is excellent, with Jeremy Irons knocking it out of the park in a single scene, but Bill Nighy in particular is wonderful -- and deserving of Oscar consideration -- as aging actor Ambrose Hilliard, who refuses to acknowledge that times have changed and that he should take the part of the drunken uncle Frank.

The talented Danish director Lone Scherfig knows a thing or two about different methods of filmmakng. Her Italian for Beginners was shot using the Dogme 95 method, and, for her Just Like Home, the script was written during shooting. She has also worked for studios and with big stars, in films like An Education and One Day.

Scherfig's touch here is vivid and rich, like a tapestry. She stays at ground level and avoids any kind of pandering to the audience; any lessons learned from this are secondary to the experience. She assumes that details about the war will already be known or can be looked up later. Scherfig also manages to re-create the mood of a picture like Brief Encounter, in which things are quieter, more refined, but not necessarily less deeply felt.

There are a few plot twists that seem a bit contrived (perhaps they could have used Catrin's touch) but they are few and far between and do not detract from a very satisfying movie.

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