I wasn't expecting much out of Their Finest, but time and again it kept hitting different pleasure centers in my brain, which made it a most pleasant surprise.
Part behind-the-scenes of a troubled production comedy, part World War II drama, part will-they-or-won't-they romance, this is a delight from start to finish, except for the part where the film rips your heart out.
Gemma Arterton, whom I typically don't care for, is terrific here as Catrin Cole, a Welsh writer who accepts a government job punching up scripts for British propaganda films. She develops an uneasy rapport with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), who shoots down a lot of her more fanciful ideas but sticks up for her when it really counts. They're tasked with churning out a script based on a true story (that turns out not to be true) about twin sisters who took their family boat to help rescue soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940.
Bill Nighy, in a tailor-made role, plays Ambrose Hilliard, an aging actor who reluctantly takes the role of the girls' uncle. He's the best part of the film, especially when he's having to teach American pilot Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy) how to act. That role fits Lacy like a glove, since he's perfect at playing handsome doofuses.
The movie within the movie is trouble from the start, and much of the comedy and conflict comes with trying to pull off a big story on a limited budget, with the government peering over their shoulders the entire production. The problems they encounter are certainly predictable, but the cast is so good, and the tone so appropriately light when needed, that the film bounces along.
But its ending sneaks up on you. In a way, there's a lot of foreshadowing that this story will end in tragedy. This is right during the heat of World War II after all, when air raids were common in London, and the person you were sharing a train with might be dead minutes later, or the person you had lunch with the previous day might have been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Yet the film ultimately ends on a hopeful note, and it will be an inspiration to any artist who might feel like what they do doesn't matter when there's so much tragedy going on in the world. Their Finest reminds you that it does, and in some ways is needed more than ever.