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Film / Their Finest

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A 2016 film about World War II, adapted from the book Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans. The story is based on a real woman who was a scriptwriter (often uncredited) for the Ministry of Information, making propaganda films to boost morale.

Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is a former secretary who took over some writing duties in the Ministry of Information as the men in the department got called up, attracting the notice of the film division with a newspaper cartoon she wrote. The film writers task her with researching the story of two sisters who reportedly piloted their father's boat to Dunkirk and back, in hopes of doing a film of it. Catrin discovers that the boat actually failed before it ever left English waters and the twins, Rose and Lily, are both reticent women under the thumb of an abusive father. But needing the job and not wanting to be sent back to Wales by her struggling artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston), Catrin lies in reporting the account. It nearly gets her fired when discovered, but her male colleagues and her boss argue to make it anyway. She clashes with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), another screenwriter who is skeptical about women's value in writing, but they slowly begin to respect and even like one another.

Meanwhile, the actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) argues with his agent over being cast as the drunk uncle, having made his name as the dashing hero in a series of detective films but too arrogant to accept that he's aged out of those roles. When a bombing hits close to him, he accepts the role. As filming commences, the friction between the Ministry people, the crew, and the actors gradually fades and they become close.

Helen McCrory, Eddie Marsan, Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, Paul Ritter, Jeremy Irons, and Jake Lacy play supporting roles.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Rose and Lily are thirty, timid, and visibly bearing the strain of living in poverty with an abusive father. The film makes them vivacious twenty-one-year-olds with beautiful dresses and makeup.
  • Adaptational Badass: in the novel, Hilliard's moment of glory was in playing a memorable supporting character in the Inspector Charnforth movies, while in the film, he played the lead, and apparently had a long and successful run as a matinee idol. His transforming the comical character of Uncle Frank into a nuanced, and interesting one was also not present in the book.
  • Adaptational Heroism: In-Universe: Lily and Rose's alcoholic, abusive father is changed to a comically drunken uncle with a tragic past, who accompanies the twins (albeit accidentally) and is killed trying to fix the propeller.
  • Adapted Out: Most of the main characters from the book besides Ambrose, Catrin and Tom. One whose absence is particularly felt is Arthur, a Dunkirk veteran (he was in the catering corps) who is brought in as a consultant for accuracy and shares an office with Ambrose.
  • America Saves the Day: Enforced in-universe. The producers and British government want to get the Americans involved in the war, so insert a noncombatant American character to catch their interest.
  • Ascended Fanboy: Lundbeck is a huge fan of Hilliard and has practically memorized all of his detective films. This is a help when Hilliard has to be talked into giving the boy some coaching.
  • Bad "Bad Acting": Carl Lundbeck. On the first day shooting him, he recites his lines awkwardly, stands stiff as a board, and turns to smile at the camera when he's done... telling "Johnny" that there's a sniper nearby. They resort to filming him as briefly as possible from the front and having him deliver most of his lines in voiceover later, with Lundbeck not facing the camera.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: After the truth of Lily and Rose's participation in Dunkirk is discovered, the writing team convinces the Ministry to make the film as "based on a thousand true stories" rather than a documentary as originally planned.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: At first it's just belligerent between Tom and Catrin, but after working together and his seeing her skill, it becomes more affectionate.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The film is a huge success, and seeing their alter egos onscreen inspires the real Rose and Lily to flee their father and enlist in the Mechanised Transport Corps, but Catrin is isolated and alone after Tom's death. Hilliard convinces Catrin to return to the Ministry, and when she finally sees the completed film decides that she should go on.
  • Cliché Storm: In-Universe. The film they're producing isn't at all subtle, being written specifically as propaganda to keep people from despairing and get the Americans in the war.
  • Death Is Dramatic: The death of the Uncle Frank character. He dies in his nieces' arms, mistaking the soldiers for his sons who died in the first World War.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: When Catrin interviews the twins, a French soldier trying to kiss one of them is clearly an uncomfortable memory that makes them shudder. In the film it's played as a romantic moment.
  • Distinguishing Mark: Hilliard has a Hope Spot when he's asked to identify Sammy's body after an air raid and it has a finger that he should be missing. The nurse dashes it by explaining that they do their best to put bodies back together for the families and had simply "reattached" a finger, not realizing it was a previous injury.
  • Does Not Like Men: Phyl knows that she's disliked by her male colleagues and the feeling is mutual, and tells Catrin she doesn't see the point in men. She's not keen on being "put back into our boxes" when the war is over and the men come back. She's also strongly implied to be a lesbian (although she does admit that if she were "inclined" differently, she might find Lundbeck attractive).
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: A theme of the story. Early on Catrin laments that the director's son died in a way that didn't "mean anything," but Tom replies that it never means anything. Tom is killed by a total accident when someone leans on a rickety lighting rig and it topples over.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Catrin laments that Lundbeck might not be so bad if all the audience had to do was look at him—then she and Buckley share a Meaningful Look when they realize that's the solution exactly.
  • Executive Meddling: In-Universe, the Ministry of Information pushes numerous alterations and edits on the film team. Among these are insisting that the engine shouldn't fail because the idea of British engines failing might hurt public morale, and the last-minute addition of an American character played by a handsome pilot who can't act.
  • Foreshadowing: The focus on the damaged lighting rig, operated by an inexperienced technician, and the background dialogue about it. Tom is killed when it falls.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Phyl, most likely short for Phyllis.
  • Good Is Dumb: Lundbeck the Danish-American pilot, especially in the book, where he admits to having enlisted in the Eagle Squadrons while American remained neutral due to mistakenly believing that England was going to fight Russia (although he stayed there after realizing his mistake out of loyalty to his comrades).
  • Heroic Safe Mode: After Tom's death, Catrin can only stare in shock. She doesn't attend the premiere and withdraws to a small flat to live quietly. It's not until Hilliard visits to try and convince her to return that she breaks down sobbing.
  • Imagine Spot: The scenes Catrin writes are played out as imaginary, desaturated sequences.
  • Large Ham: Ambrose Hilliard, played by Bill Nighy, steals basically all the scenes he's in.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: The techniques discussed by the writers, directors, and actors for use in "The Nancy Starling" are easily visible in the overall film.
  • Life Imitates Art: In-Universe, Lily and Rose are inspired by their heroic and capable counterparts in the movie to become mechanics.
  • Love Confession: Catrin spends the night at the office "rewriting" her rejection of Buckley's proposal and their subsequent bitter argument with a better ending, leaving it for him to find. It works.
  • Love Triangle: Both in the film and in the film within the film. The film within a film triangle ends with the third backing out gracefully, the other ends with Ellis leaving...but Tom dies anyway.
  • Luvvies: Hilliard, a self-important and fussy ex-matinee star.
  • Men Act, Women Are:
    • Early on, Catrin and Tom argue about having Rose fix the engine in the film. She says that women need to see themselves able to be heroic, but he insists that women don't want to be heroes, they want to have the hero rescue them. After the accident with the lighting rig kills him and injures all the actors who would have played the engine-fixing part, Catrin quietly makes the suggestion again and Rose frees the engine in the final cut.
    • This is present also in Catrin's life with her position as Ellis' "muse" and his resistance to her job.
  • Mister Muffykins: Sammy absolutely spoils his bull terrier. Sophie, when she inherits the dog, disciplines it properly—much as she begins to discipline Halliard.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • Catrin is caught outside when a bomb falls and picks her way through the rubble in horror at the bodies around her until she realizes they're mannequins from a storefront and starts to giggle in relief... and then she finds a real woman's bloody corpse, and throws up.
    • Also, later in the film, when Tom dies, moments earlier Catrin and Tom had finally kissed and made up, and everything looked happy. Then the lighting rig falls on Tom.
  • Moral Guardians: There's a bit of a flap with them when the inclusion of the American character, who must of course be heroic and attractive, creates the appearance of a Love Triangle between him, Rose, and Johnny the English hero.
  • Multiple Demographic Appeal: In-Universe, the movie is intentionally crafted to appeal to the broadest possible audience: men and women, British and Americans, and children, young adults, and the elderly.
  • Narm: In-Universe with the propaganda film shown at the start, a real movie made about women working in a bullet factory. The audience laughs at it, which is why Roger Swain decides they need a woman to write women.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: The sisters, inspired by their fictional heroics in the movie, enlist to become mechanics.
  • Pet the Dog: One of Johnny's heroic acts in the film is saving a dog from a Nazi sniper.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: In-universe. Creating a film in a country that's under attack and with most of the potential actors gone to war is no easy task.
  • Recycled Script: The government films Catrin writes In-Universe are an example. The scripts are identical, but with with the actors obscuring their mouths so the appropriate words can be dubbed in (e.g. one film recommending growing carrots in a victory garden but saying something else entirely in another).
  • Shout-Out: To various stars of the era from Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, to Britain's own, Robert Donat. The twins wonder if Catrin has met the latter and are excited when they get a photograph from Eric of Donat.
  • Show Within a Show: The film "The Nancy Starling."
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Sophie, the sister of Hilliard's agent Sammy. He speaks of her as someone he needs to support, and when he is killed she seems frail and lost. However, when she takes charge of the agency, she quickly puts Hilliard in his place with a no-nonsense attitude because wasting time and money on an unprofitable actor would be irresponsible to the people she's now supporting.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Hilliard, after Sammy's death, gradually begins to shed his prima donna attitude and develops a sense of respect and affection for his costars and the crew while filming in Devon. When Sophie is convinced that he's worth keeping as a client, she offers to get him the special accommodations he'd always demanded (separate rooms and no interaction with the crew, especially electricians for some reason), Hilliard looks ashamed to be reminded.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: Hilliard is a male version. He starred in a popular series of detective films about a Sherlock Holmes type of character and is still stopped on the street by fans, but he hasn't been offered a role in some time. When his agent Sammy hands him the script for "The Nancy Starling," Hilliard initially thinks he's playing the hero.