Movie Talk: ‘Their Finest’

We haven’t done a Movie Talk in a while – possibly because the romantic comedy isn’t actually a very popular genre right now. Most of the recent romantic films in cinemas are dramas or weepies, and even when they’re funny, they’re mostly ‘dramedies’.

Lone Scherfig’s WWII-set film Their Finest follows Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), who gets a screenwriting job at the UK Ministry of Information. Much to the disgust of her new colleague Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), Catrin is charged with writing a patriotic war movie about the Dunkirk evacuation, with female heroes, and veteran actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) playing a supporting role. As Catrin develops genuine pride in her work, she’s romantically torn between the sarcastic, cerebral Tom and her husband, war artist Ellis Cole (Jack Huston).

Mel: What I really liked about Their Finest was that it was a backstage (behind-screen?) film about the artificiality of cinema.

Anthony: I’m not usually a fan of behind-the-scenes stuff as I think it kills the magic, but Their Finest was pretty fun with it.

Mel: Also, given that one of my pet tropes is ‘love on the run’ or ‘love in the ruins’ I was really, really into the ‘love in the Blitz’, “death could come at any moment!” vibe of this film.

Anthony: I am also a sucker for movies about a team getting their shit together to get the job done.

Mel: But of course, the studio devalues women’s contributions because female dialogue is referred to as “the slop”. The whole point of Gemma Arterton’s character Catrin was to add a woman’s perspective, because all the blokes’ imaginations completely ran out when it came to what women do and want.

Anthony: But surely women just want shirtless dudes?

Mel: Okay, let’s talk about Catrin, and what she wants.

Anthony: A shirt-free society? Hitler would have won the war if the SS had stood for “Shirtless Soldiers”.

Mel: At the start of the film Catrin is this Welsh farm girl who’s been seduced by the commie artist Ellis, who came to her town to do modernist paintings of the mines, but now she’s having to bear the brunt of his artistic and political ideals. They’re really poor because his rich family disinherited him because of his politics, but he feels emasculated that Catrin is now the breadwinner.

Anthony: Yes, I liked the way she was clearly a smalltown girl swept away by Ellis’s big ideas, rather than just his studliness.

Mel: Interestingly, her love interest Tom is not eroticised in a physical way: he’s positioned as an ‘intellectual’ with the glasses and the screwball banter, wearing knitted vests, et cetera. But Tom is her perfect match because he comes to value her for her skills and the way they make a good writing team. In a way it’s not too far from the Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore rom-com Music and Lyrics, in that the presumed ‘dumb’ heroine turns out to have a key creative input.

Anthony: But that’s the way “good girls” are often positioned in movies – they’re into brains and personality, not pleasures of the flesh. In part it’s because while dudes may be aware they’re not muscle-bound studs, they do often fool themselves about their winning personalities and vast knowledge. She’s not dumb here, though.

Mel: I thought it was SO VERY BRITISH the way they were all repressed, that they clearly loved each other but were unable to say so. It was very Remains of the Day.

Anthony: That’s the big gun the British film industry has when it comes to romance, though – they have an in-built obstacle to true love. The way everyone is supposedly so reluctant to reveal their true feelings enables them to get 90 minutes out of a love story than in other parts of the world would be “wanna do it? “sure!”

Mel: Can you think of a UK film in which the male body has been an object of lust and not laughter (like in The Full Monty)?

Anthony: Britain has a different comedy tradition to the US – bodies are more of a source of comedy than a location of desire (in the public sphere).

Mel: It’s weird, it’s like UK actors go to the US to become studs – or to Europe to become arthouse studs. Who are your favourite British studs?

Anthony: The UK just doesn’t have the weather or the settings to show bodies off to their best. See, UK studs are almost always brainy types – Cumberbatch, Grant, et cetera.

Mel: Oh hang on though, what about like Mr Darcy and his see-through wet shirt, or Poldark and his shirtless scything? There’s a certain kind of eroticism that comes from the audience, and so isn’t natural to the story but is inserted as fan service.

Anthony: The retro shirtless stud stands out because the past is romanticised in those stories. Anything from the Victorian era to today is not a sexy UK setting.

Mel: I think there are heaps of sexy post-Victorian UK settings!

Anthony: Not fleshy sexy though – unrequited love and restraint become the order of the day. But before Queen Vic the UK is a land of lusty passions.

Mel: The Victorian era is portrayed as having a kind of perverse, kinky sexuality – like that film about the invention of the vibrator, with Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Anthony: Yes, it’s very repressed (though not really). Supposedly the problem today is the Victorians either didn’t write down their sexy stuff or when they did, the books were read so much they fell apart and the only surviving books are dull religious tracts praising restraint.

Melissa: I think a lot of the Victorian ‘repression’ stuff is bad PR from the Edwardians, who were desperate to diss the previous generations. Personally I think the popular image of the 1940s is similar in that the war both represses lust and makes it burst out desperately. Like in Allied and Casablanca.

Anthony: Yes, after the Victorians it’s only when under direct threat that UK types can get busy. See also: Titanic. Much of the Victorian repression was a reaction against their free-wheeling forebears, and so on and so forth.

Mel: Okay, well back to the film: what did you think of its bold twist late in the film that ruined the ‘happy ending’ towards which rom-com clichés teach us to lean? I quite liked the way that it ruined audience expectations.

Anthony: It would have been a “bold twist” if it hadn’t been somewhat telegraphed by the plot.

Mel: Really, you think it was telegraphed? It took me by surprise.

Anthony: I’m sure normal people don’t think this way but when the plot reached a certain point – keeping it vague here – and the movie clearly still had a bit to go I knew some kind of twist was coming. The development they’d set up was the clear endpoint of the movie, but as the movie still had a way to go – they hadn’t finished the film within the film! – I knew there had to be more to come.

Mel: I feel it’s okay to talk about spoilers because I actually have no idea what you mean by that and I’ve seen the film.

Anthony: Okay, when Catrin and Tom got together I knew something bad was going to happen because the movie clearly wasn’t over.

Mel: I wasn’t assuming it would be bad in the way it was – I thought it would be ‘rom-com bad’ i.e. Ellis wants Catrin back, or she gets a job offer in the US.

Anthony: If your movie is about a woman looking for love and she seems to have found it, only the rest of the movie is still moving forward, then (if you’re me) you start to worry when people go to cross the road and so on.

Mel: That’s actually an interesting point: the way that rom-coms never usually let the tone get too bleak. Like, maybe an old person or a side character might die, or there might be a serious illness, but as opposed to a weepie, they won’t usually let anything really bad happen to the main characters.

Anthony: Yes, even here they’d worked hard to establish those around Catrin as a surrogate family, so that even when things got really bad we knew there’d be people there to help her go on.

Mel: I suppose they did telegraph it when that other character died reasonably early in the film – but that was mainly to give Bill Nighy a love interest.

Anthony: There’s been a few rom-almost-coms where the big third-act development is “I found love… THEN IT DIED!” One Day, et cetera.

Mel: Was that a romcom or was it a weepie?

Anthony: Half and half. Also that one about assisted suicide.

Mel: Me Before You – which Sam Claflin also stars in – is a very generic weepie. They knew what its genre was and went about it very efficiently. Do you think Their Finest worked in genre terms? Do you think it was trying to be the same kind of ‘keep calm and carry on’ vibe of the film-within-a-film?

Anthony: Yes, but it wasn’t really a rom-com.

Mel: It had a lot of comedic elements and tropes in it.

Anthony: It was that kind of jolly British film where a group of people muck in to get the job done with some romance laid over it.

Mel: Well, I identified it as a workplace rom-com.

Anthony: It had comedic elements, sure, but UK comedy is kind of more grounded a lot of the time than American comedy – they’re much more accepting of funny things happening in a realistic film.

Mel: Bill Nighy is an important intertextual presence because he’s been in films like Love Actually and About Time, in which he gets to be this mean, sarcastic but secretly caring older man.

Anthony: I mean, it’s also yet another UK film patting the UK on the back for winning the war.

Mel: It was their finest hour! As the title implies!

Anthony: Get over it.

Mel: The book on which it’s based is called Their Finest Hour And A Half.

Anthony: A much better title.

Mel: I think for me it successfully captured the kind of yearning patriotic romance of those kinds of Powell/Pressburger WWII films.

Anthony: Yes, it’s very much that kind of throwback film. It’s definitely a funny film with a lot of comedy in it, but it’s not really a comedy across the board – the set-up isn’t a comedy set-up, and many of the cast are basically in serious roles (even if they get a funny line or two). It wants to reinforce that feeling we have about the past, rather than mock it.

Mel: But I think it also had a key point which was that comfort was needed at the time, and not just now, nostalgically. The final scene in the cinema where everyone is crying and laughing was so important to me, because it shows that cinema can be soothing and escapist, which is often what you want from a rom-com.

Anthony: A better ending would have been everyone yelling, “This is shit! Where are the giant robots?”

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