Gemma Arterton is like caffeine.
When I walked, (well okay, ran) into the screening of Their Finest, I mumbled to my partner, “I hope I can stay awake for this”. Not because I thought it would be boring. But because I was tired. And also. It’s about war.
I had my disgustingly large cup of coke and popcorn to see me through. As it turns out, the highly serious people that attend preview film screenings do not take kindly to the small crunching noises that are necessary to chew popcorn. A lady leaned over my shoulder and hissed, ‘Could you SHHH??!’ when I was midway through my second bite. I stared at her, mouth agape, full of a soggy slosh of corn.
Well. I was exhausted. I was SHHHed. I was not in the mood.
And then this transparent, nervous, unadulterated woman comes on screen. With her generous lick of a Welsh accent and her overset upper lip, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, Quantum of Solace, Prince of Persia) is modestly gorgeous. It’s her first day in a new job as a copywriter for the Ministry of Information - Film Division, and she’s giving us that first-day feeling we’ve all had, of being completely bombarded by information.
Almost straight away, we’re exposed to the smallness she is made to feel. The first day is hectic, and she appears worried, walking quickly enough to keep up. Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin, The Hunger Games, Me Before You), interviewing her for the job, condescendingly informs her that “...obviously we can’t pay you as much as the chaps”. He then patronizingly refers to the war propaganda she’ll be writing as “...slop. You know, women’s dialogue”.
It’s clear that she has only been given this position because it’s war time and so many men are at the front. She is seen slinking around on set, trying not to step on any toes (figuratively and literally) or get in anyone’s way. She is hesitant.
And then, just as I was beginning to feel restless for her, she expresses some quietly confident sass. She makes it clear that even though she’s been made to feel small, she won’t be minimized. She gives a note to an actor on set (Bill Nighy - more on him later) despite all the social cues against this. My heart lept. I had fallen in love with her gumption.
Even though the cinematography often reinforces her supposed insignificance, with the camera hovering slightly above her, or showing her as a small figure against a wide landscape, she continued to surprise and impress me and her fellow writers with her quick wit. So much so that she lands the opportunity to be one of the key writers for a new women-driven propaganda film to inspire the public.
Even though Their Finest is set during WWII, it still manages to be lighthearted, helped in part by the flirtation between Cole and Buckley. Their back and forth banter is heart-quickeningly delightful. With Buckley’s sarcastic one-liners, and his nonchalant charm, he plays the asshole-that-you-love character very well.
The spectacular peacock of self assurance and humor that is Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy, Love Actually) also helps. He plays Uncle Frank, the drunken uncle in the propaganda film that Cole co-writes. Hilliard is arrogant, vain and altogether lovable.
Director Lone Scherfig (The Riot Club, One Day) makes ordinary things beautiful. Not a novice at creating beautiful films, Scherfig directed An Education, which was nominated for no less than 3 Academy Awards in 2010, including the director’s dream, Best Picture.
The color palette is full of dreary London greys, wet weather and smoke from the bombings. Cole is often a splotch of bright red, or natural nude, in amongst the darkness. Her coats and hats lift our spirits, as she walks along sidewalks.
What I enjoyed most about this film, though, were the smallest details. Scherfig uses closeups to increase the sense of intimacy we have with the characters. The camera lingers on the tiniest touch of Buckley’s little finger against his thumb before he taps his cigarette against the rim of his teacup. Buckley’s cracked glasses on the ground, mottled with drops of water and specks of dust. The crushed black kettle that Cole plucks from amidst the rubble after an air raid.
I love detail because it makes me feel like I’m in the story. Like maybe I could be a woman like Cole. Maybe I could be as good a writer and as brave. There was the heaviest rain driving home from the cinema. I felt eloquent, and light. I stuck out my upper lip and pretended I was Catrin Cole.