Greg Llamas is a journalism senior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this column do not reflect the viewpoints and editorial coverage of Mustang News.
When it comes to World War II movies, it’s easy to think of well-known films like “Saving Private Ryan” or “Schindler’s List.” These types of war films often display the brutality of war while praising the heroism soldiers and affected figures face. The main plot of these types of films is either “Let’s go kill the Nazis/Japanese” or “Let’s go save the Jews.”
One aspect of World War II that isn’t covered as frequently in film is the home front, places far away from the war but still greatly affected by it. That’s why “Their Finest” is one of the most interesting World War II movies in recent memory, adapted from Lissa Evans’ novel, “Their Finest Hour and a Half.” Instead of focusing on hard-fought battles that show how bloody and unnecessary war is, “Their Finest” highlights what citizens of a warring country at home deal with and the struggles they endure.
In 1940 in London, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) struggles to make ends meet with her artist lover Ellis Cole (Jack Huston), a man without a steady income who paints dreary portraits of wartime industry. After being hired by the Ministry of Information to flesh out female dialogue in propaganda films, she starts a friendly rivalry with fellow screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). They brainstorm ideas for propaganda geared toward Americans about twin sisters who steal their father’s boat to save British troops at the Battle of Dunkirk. As the arrogant actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) and the rest of the crew assemble to shoot the film, Catrin and Buckley form a relationship that gets too close.
“Their Finest” portrays an almost paradoxical world where life in London must carry on as usual while German planes routinely raid the city with payloads of bombs. Londoners must routinely hide when the air-raid sirens turn on, which is very frequently. Catrin and Buckley spend their days working in the scriptwriting room while bombs from German aircrafts shake their building as well as several others, often damaging the ceiling. Even though they are away from any conflict on the mainland, World War II is still something directly affecting them.
This paradox of continuing normalcy in a war-ridden world reaches its peak when Catrin casually walks down a street and a store near her is destroyed by German bombers. Among the pile of rubble and mangled mannequins is the body of a woman just killed by the attack that could’ve taken Catrin’s life. This causes her to vomit in a dark alleyway, one of the strongest visuals in the film. Life is fragile in London — one moment citizens are going about their day and the next, they’re gone.
The interesting, yet terrifying world of war-torn London is just a piece of the film’s intrigue. The bosses at the Ministry of Information task the screenwriters with creating a story both “authentic and optimistic,” a seeming contradiction for the dreary state of the world. These themes that the bosses wanted in their own film trickle down into the rest of “Their Finest,” as there are some genuine moments of happiness for the characters in a world that is so broken.
One of the happy moments in the film comes from the developing relationship between Catrin and Buckley. At first, their rivalry seems forced, Buckley comes across as a man who doesn’t want a woman to steal any of his creativity. But this conflict turns friendly as he begins to acknowledge that Catrin is just as talented as he is at writing. Their relationship feels real as it develops from a sort of hesitance to a legitimate friendship.
Of course, this friendship gets a bit too close and Catrin finds herself in a sort of love triangle between Buckley and Ellis. I say sort of because it’s one of the least interesting aspects of the film. We’re never given a reason to like Ellis as he’s unsupportive of Catrin’s goals and ashamed that she brings home more money than he does. Even with an injury he sustained in the past, there’s nothing at all likable about Ellis. It’s quite obvious that Buckley is a better partner for Catin and there’s no conflict at all when it comes to something so clear.
Along for the ride in Catrin and Buckley’s film is Ambrose Hilliard, a star of an old detective series who plays the drunkard Uncle Frank. Whenever on the screen, Hillard takes over the scene. Despite his arrogance, there’s a sort of charm to his eccentricity which makes him more appealing than any other character. Hilliard has a soft and caring side to him under all his pretentiousness. He genuinely cares for people as he patiently mentors the handsome war hero — but terrible actor — Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy) for his role in the film. Hilliard also cares for Catrin, praising her writing of Uncle Frank and comforting her when tragedy strikes in her life.
The most enamoring scenes in “Their Finest” are when the film Catrin and Buckley wrote is shot. Far from the damaged alleys and streets of London, they film on the soothing beaches and grassy plains of the British countryside. Even with the world so divided and the future uncertain, Catrin and Buckley are able to develop a relationship in the most hopeful of places.
“Their Finest” is the most unique World War II film to be released recently, a rare dramedy in World War II era films. It portrays relationships developed outside of being directly involved with a war, but it shows how difficult life can be for those left at home and those involved on the home front war effort. As the poster for “Their Finest” says, “In the fight for freedom, everyone played a part.”