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Period romantic drama employs deft humor to tip the scales

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole (left) and Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard in ‘Their Finest’ Rating: R; Grade: B

Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig has been an international festival darling for most of her career, racing out of the gate with her first feature “The Birthday Trip,” in 1990, earning exclusive section spots at Berlin and MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York and winning the Grand Jury Prix in Rouen, France. Her feature, “Italian for Beginners,” (part of the Danish Dogma Movement to set movie-making rules that would reduce the cost and size of most film sets to a minimum) captured audience attention and international critics prizes (FIPRESCI) in 2001. But her strongest outing came in 2009 with “An Education,” which seized the Audience Award at Sundance before snagging three Academy Award nominations and eight BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts).

Her latest, “Their Finest,” just missed securing a spot on my festival schedule in Toronto last year. The story of Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a former secretary elevated to screenwriting for a propaganda film company in England during World War II, has all the earmarks of a certain crowd pleaser, especially for general festival patrons. While set in wartime, “Their Finest” shies away from the bloody battlefields and the dark atrocities of the Holocaust, instead focusing on efforts to lift the spirits of those laboring on the home front. Audiences of newly working women and men, too old or unfit for battle, needed a boost to take their minds off the constant threat of German bombings.

And in Catrin, the film gets the perfect protagonist for these desperate times. She steadfastly stands by her man Ellis Cole (Jack Huston), a wounded artist with vague political leanings, fashioning work to rally the workers in the factories, but there’s always the sense that Ellis cares more about personal gain. So it falls to Catrin to scrape enough money to pay the rent and keep food on the table in between the air raid sirens and the blackouts.

Catrin is smart and fiercely determined. When given the assignment of investigating the story of a pair of twin sisters who took their father’s fishing boat out to Dunkirk in order to aid in the rescue of troops, she discovers a less than heroic reality, but fights to use the anecdote as the basis for a rousing feature. It is obvious that she’s not willing to sit idly by when opportunity knocks, so it doesn’t look like a calculated career move at all when she speaks up, drawing the attention of Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), a pompous actor, and Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), a dedicated screenwriter.

“Their Finest,” which is based on a novel (“Their Finest Hour and a Half” by Lissa Evans), surely plays up the slow-burning romance between Catrin and Buckley, but Scherfig and screenwriter Gaby Chiappe wisely let the tension simmer in a thick stew of glances and subtly witty repartee that Arterton and Claflin handle with grace and ease. Both performers are charismatic, yet able to make us believe that they don’t understand or appreciate their considerable charms. Claflin, in particular, wearing a pair of glasses and a hat, reminds me of Clark Kent who is unwilling to let his inner Superman burst forth. There is more than a bit of wonder lurking in Arteron’s modest woman of means, too, making her yet another capable female lead in Scherfig’s filmography.

Modesty, in fact, is the defining trait of “Their Finest.” None of these characters—not even Nighy’s narcissistic scenery chewer—would ever dare to rise too far above their stations, just like Scherfig’s film. It is a simple tale of war and love, with teasing strands of feminism and sexual orientation woven into the mix, writ in small human terms, so that audiences get the period’s feel-good message without its getting lost in an explosion of politically and socially engineered themes from the modern era.