This unusual film has created a fair amount of controversy and has seemingly divided audiences sharply between those who see it as representing an important issue for women and those who were flat-out bored watching it. Before the screening I had seen a Twitter conversation in which a female critic complained a) about the “white male” audience of critics she watched the film with at a press showing and b) that these men generally seemed to disregard or simply not mention the sexual abuse in the marriage depicted on screen. I also read an interview with the film’s star (and executive producer), Gemma Arterton. Here are a couple of extracts:
Already released in France, it seemed to make one journalist very angry. “You make a film about a boring wife who’s fed up,” he challenged Arterton in an interview. “She’s always sad, she whinges all the time, she doesn’t stop crying. Why are we compelled?” “I was so pleased by his reaction!” Arterton exclaims. “I think he hated the film, he was so angry and pissed off that he had to tell me, and I thought, well, that’s good. That’s great. I didn’t set out to make a film that was universally loved. It’s meant to create polarising opinions.”
The sex scenes in The Escape are strikingly unlike what we’re used to seeing in movies. The camera remains trained on Arterton’s face, so we can’t fail to see the gritted teeth and deadening disappointment her husband doesn’t even notice. Even when tears are streaming down her face, he still doesn’t get the message, and says: “I can’t tell whether you’re laughing or crying.” “But it’s not abusive,” Arterton stresses. “Because she could say no.” (from ‘Gemma Arterton: ‘Everyone in the industry knows I’m a pain’’, interview by Decca Aikenhead, the Guardian 14 July 2018
The interview above also discusses the production background to this film. Its £1 million budget was raised independently from City investors and the outline screenplay by writer-director Dominic Savage was then developed through improvisation by the central characters.
I should perhaps state at this point that I am a fan and admirer of Gemma Arterton’s work and I see her, alongside Maxine Peake, as one of the UK’s foremost actors from a working-class background. For me her career began unfortunately in blockbuster mainstream films (which I haven’t seen) which she herself now tends to disown. I have seen several of her lower budget films but The Escape is different because of her own personal involvement in its production.
Dominic Savage is best known as a writer-director in TV but I have strong memories of his previous film Love + Hate (UK 2005) which was set very carefully and precisely in Blackburn and imagined a kind of Romeo and Juliet story involving a young Asian woman and a similarly young white working-class lad. I used the film in a schools film education event and explored the representation issues in what is a form of realist narrative with sensitive casting. Savage is very interested in ‘love stories’ and The Escape shares some elements with Love + Hate, especially in its location and casting. Savage himself was born in Margate, one of the seaside towns beloved of traditional London working-class communities. Gemma Arterton was born in Gravesend, a little closer to London but still in Kent. Her co-star in The Escape, Dominic Cooper, was born in Blackheath, South-East London (on the way to Gravesend). Cooper and Arterton have been paired before in Tamara Drewe (UK 2010) but here both are playing close to their roots. Because of the peculiarities of the English education system, working-class Gemma went to a grammar school in Kent while the more middle-class Dominic went to the local comprehensive, Thomas Tallis in Kidbroke. Both ended up at drama school. I mention all of this because The Escape seems to me as much about class as about gender.
Mark (Dominic Cooper) and Tara (Gemma Arterton) live on a new estate of ‘junior executive homes’ in a London ‘satellite town’ in Kent. We don’t know what Mark does but it obviously pays well as this is a two car family and Tara doesn’t work, although she is expected to be a ‘good housewife and mother’ with a youngest child in nursery school and another in the primary school next door. But Tara is unhappy and she’s not sure why. Mark is played by Dominic Cooper as a somewhat thuggish/boorish character. The ‘sexual abuse’ referred to above describes his behaviour whereby he expects sex when he wants it and is less than considerate towards Tara, not seeing or feeling her unhappiness. Is this abuse? I suspect many men have treated wives and girlfriends like this on occasions, out of ignorance and insensitivity, but probably not as frequently or unpleasantly as Mark. In the interview above, Arterton explains:
“In Gravesend, we all know that kind of guy, and he’s not a bad guy. What he is, he’s just . . . I think he’s just out of his depth. He’s not creative. He’s not open-minded. He’s just quite traditional, and not on the same wavelength.”
I think we are meant to recognise that Tara should call him out and challenge his behaviour and that the two of them should talk it through. But it has already gone too far. Tara is depressed and has become de-sensitised. This is as much about her situation more broadly than it is about solely Mark’s behaviour in the bedroom. The film feels to me like a critique of a whole way of life. At one point the camera rises and show a vista of rooftops with, in the distance, electricity pylons and the outlines of other settlements leading towards the metropolis. The rooftops reminded me of an undeservedly long-forgotten film, Ken Loach’s Family Life (UK 1971), his film version of David Mercer’s play about a young woman with schizophrenia, aggravated by her ‘caring’ family in suburbia. Many, many people in the UK live on modern estates like this in identical houses. I don’t know how they do it. One of the major controversies about The Escape concerns Tara’s inability/refusal to ‘look after’ her children. She finds she is just not interested in them and that her relationship with them has broken down. Mark is actually better with them. As many viewers have pointed out, men can feel this way towards their children as well, but they aren’t immediately pilloried as a result. But a woman can’t admit that she doesn’t feel for her children.
Tara’s ‘escape’ begins with a trip to the South Bank in London where she buys a pair of art books from the stalls outside the NFT/BFI. Could art be her way out? When she finally cracks, she takes advantage of Kent’s transport links and hops on a Eurostar train at Ebbsfleet, heading for Paris. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative. You can probably guess some of what happens in Paris. The ending of the film is ‘open’. In fact, at the end we realise that we have returned to the sequence at the start of the film which doesn’t see Tara in the house in Kent, but somewhere quite different. Why is she there? What will happen to her marriage, her husband and her children?
This is not a ‘fun film’ but it is one which will resonate with many viewers. Gemma Arteton is excellent throughout and Dominic Cooper plays ‘ugly’ very effectively. Dominic Savage uses several strategies to suggest Tara’s internal world. Laurie Rose’s camera frequently uses shallow focus to catch Tara’s face as she twists and turns in what feel like enclosed spaces, emphasised by the blurred backgrounds. I usually find this an irritating technique, but it has a real purpose here. Compositions emphasise Tara in halls, opening doors, looking through windows and in a different scenario looking out over landscapes. Many of these techniques are evident in the trailer below and in the image above. On the soundtrack the music by Anthony John and Alexandra Harwood includes throbbing bass notes as Tara’s anxiety increases.
I need to repeat that this isn’t ‘feelgood’ cinema. Tara is not noble, she isn’t oppressed by money worries. She is beautiful and she is healthy. She has everything capitalist society is supposed to offer a young mother. She has a husband who may love her but who can’t understand her and hasn’t got the emotional intelligence to know what is going on. He lashes out at her and assumes he knows what is best. She doesn’t know what to do. I can see some audiences will dislike the main characters and will find the film slow and perhaps ‘boring’, but for me it is a devastating look at a failed consumer society that has become soulless. It’s no coincidence that in England today, support for the arts and ‘cultural opportunities for all’ is being cut and educational programmes are narrowing in scope. Tara’s ‘escape’ is a search for some kind of meaning. What divides her and Mark is that she can just about remember what education gave her but he hasn’t retained anything. The problem with those new estates is partly a lack of ‘community culture’ – and meaningful local relationships – Tara doesn’t have a female friend to talk to, only her not very sympathetic mother. Mark probably thinks he is ‘middle-class’ now because of his well-paid job, but it’s a myth. Perhaps we need to know more about what he feels? But then again, this is Tara’s story, isn’t it?
Their Finest is a most enjoyable film that had us sobbing as well as laughing. Mostly light, it also has very dark moments and I thought that this was a well-crafted script by Gaby Chiappe that manages to mix references to contemporary 1940s Home Front films, documentary and propaganda work and more modern perspectives on viewing the wartime period. Based on the 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, this is a story about what it might have been like for a bright young woman to find herself thrust into the British film industry in 1940 as a dialogue writer at a time when films were part of the war effort and it was important to find the ‘authentic voice’ of people across the UK. Up till then, the industry was best known for putting West End plays on screen or casting working-class comedians in films for Northern audiences. Think Anna Neagle vs. Gracie Fields. There was a female writer at Ealing in the period who might have been a model for the film’s protagonist. Diana Morgan did in fact work alongside some of Ealing’s major screenwriters and directors. Her wartime work includes a co-scripting credit for Ships With Wings (1941), a ‘romance melodrama’ about a Fleet Air Arm pilot flying in the defence of Greece against the Germans. Better known now is the Cavalcanti film from Ealing Went the Day Well (1942), the very effective warning against German invasion and the dangers of ‘fifth columnists’. Morgan worked on this screenplay as well. She too was Welsh, like Catrin in Their Finest and roughly the same age, but she had experience writing successful West End revues with her husband
Lissa Evans tells us that she researched the wartime industry and watched many of the films – and it shows. Our heroine is Catrin/Katherine, a girl from Ebbw Vale living in London with her husband, a Spanish Civil War veteran prevented from joining up because of a war wound and now a struggling artist. Catrin works is working as a secretary when a chance meeting lands her a job at the Ministry of Information writing the ‘slop’ – women’s dialogue in short propaganda films. I don’t think I’ve heard that term before but the general sexism – and the responses to it from women ‘liberated’ by the accidents of war – are all too familiar. I’ve heard some comments and read some reviews which refer to the ‘silliness’ of the plotting in Their Finest, but I suggest that the writers ought to spend a little time looking at the work of The Archers (Powell & Pressburger), the documentarists drafted into propaganda work, Ealing Studios, Launder & Gilliat with Millions Like Us and many more. I think I could find a wartime film reference for most of the incidents in Lissa Evans’ story.
Catrin is played, wonderfully, by Gemma Arterton. I’m certainly a fan of Ms Arterton and she looks terrific in those 40s outfits. I’m pleased that she seems to have given up Hollywood blockbusters for smaller independents and stage work. Perhaps she will benefit from the Lone Scherfig touch. There is some similarity, I think, between Catrin in this film and Carey Mulligan’s Jenny in An Education (UK 2009). An Education made Mulligan a star and kick-started Scherfig’s anglophone film career. Lone Scherfig is also served by a host of female collaborators: the writers, producers, casting agent, film editor, production designers and production managers – and composer Rachel Portman with a nicely judged score and choice of non-original material. One inconsequential scene stood out for me. Gemma Arterton is not a waif-like leading lady. She’s quite tall and shapely. At one point, when she is moved into a new writing office, she finds herself squeezing uncomfortably between desks and cabinets to get to her desk. The position of her desk is deliberately awkward to emphasise her place in the pecking order. When the two men leave her working one night, she is told she should ‘tidy up’ the office. When they return, she has indeed tidied up and now her desk is free of clutter, and if I remember rightly, now higher up than the mens’ and easy to access. She doesn’t make a fuss but simply smiles sweetly. This is an aspect of the film for which Scherfig and Chiappe have been praised highly. Instead of putting down or confronting the sexism (which might appear anachronistic), these extremely capable women simply demonstrate that they are right without fuss.
Their Finest is primarily a “let’s make a film about ‘x”’ narrative which involves a rather warm and nostalgic view of wartime filmmaking, but also accurately represents the problems facing the industry. The close collaboration of the writers also sets up the possibility of a romance between Catrin (whose husband doesn’t appreciate her abilities) and her chief tormenter, the writer Tom Baker played by Sam Claflin. Claflin is best-known for franchises such as The Hunger Games and The Huntsman and I confess that I didn’t take too much notice of him in those films, but here with a thin ‘tache and round glasses, he presents an interesting character and his dialogues with Catrin are often witty and rapid-fire. Some reviewers describe the film as a romcom. I’m not sure I agree. It certainly has both romance and comedy but not the typical romcom structure. It draws on a wide range of repertoires and interesting sub-plots and secondary characters that don’t necessarily bear on the romance directly. I should also add that there are some surprising plot twists which confound romcom assumptions.
The film being made is ‘based on a true story’ and involves two young women in the evacuation of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. As far as I’m aware, there were no wartime films directly about Dunkirk. Ealing’s film with John Mills was made in the late 1950s. The only ‘real’ major conflicts that were celebrated in wartime films were victories – and then often it was documentary realism that came to the fore, e.g. in Desert Victory (1943). ‘The Nancy Starling’ (the name of the young women’s ship, named after their mother) seems to me an amalgam of several ideas for films early in the war. The most likely source for the ideas about the film-in-film production here is The Foreman Went to France (Ealing 1942) in which a Welsh engineer is sent to France in 1940 to try to bring vital machinery back to the UK before it is captured by the invading German forces. He is helped by the film’s star, comedian Tommy Trinder, and Gordon Jackson playing British Army soldiers. I was also reminded of One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) made by Powell & Pressburger for the Ministry of Information and featuring Googie Withers and Pamela Brown as Dutch women helping an RAF crew who had to abandon their plane over Holland get back to England. That film highlighted the Dutch resistance and the importance of the British war effort for Occupied Europe. Their Finest deals with a production which halfway through the scripting is required to appeal to American audiences. This did indeed happen with documentary films such as Humprey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942) with its tagged on appeal to American audiences (by a Canadian). There are some nice jokes about a documentary filmmaker directing ‘The Nancy Starling’. The idea of featuring a ‘real’ American airman in ‘The Nancy Starling’, a volunteer from one of the Eagle Squadrons formed for the RAF, is also based on fact. Powell & Pressburger cast Sgt John Sweet of the US Army in their 1944 film Canterbury Tale (arguably their strangest ‘propaganda film’). Most of Powell & Pressburger’s wartime films were part-funded/supported by the Ministry of Information or other government agencies. This enabled them to use expensive Technicolor filmstock, but also created major problems when their films didn’t conform to official propaganda lines – see the strife over the Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943). Both Technicolor and War Office interference are evident on the production of ‘The Nancy Starling’.
Most of the reviews of Their Finest, single out Bill Nighy’s performance as the ageing actor Ambrose Hilliard. Nighy does what he does best and it is indeed entertaining – and certainly provides plenty of audience pleasure. But for me, his part is perhaps a little too big. Helen McRory plays his agent and represents another capable woman, doing her job well, but the character I would like to have seen with an expanded role is Phyl, the 1940s lesbian (played by Rachael Stirling) whose job I didn’t fully understand, but she seems to be the Ministry of Information’s manager on set. I’d have liked to have seen more of her adviser/mentor role for Catrin. She also represents the character who most brings to mind the retrospective view of women in wartime which has appeared in several plays, novels, TV and films since the war and particularly since the 1970s. The one that I remembered was Sarah Waters’ novel (and later a TV adaptation) The Night Watch 2006. I was interested in reading North American reviews of Their Finest by a remark about the ‘British sub-genre’ of the Home Front drama. I think Hollywood sees the ‘Home Front’ as a relatively small part of the range of narratives surrounding the Second World War, but in the UK, the ‘total war’ meant that women were involved as much as men.
Their Finest is an important British film with a wonderful cast of British character actors including Eddie Marsan, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons and Henry Goodman. It was shot on location in West Wales and in Pinewood – standing in for the host of 1940s London Studios. I hope it goes on to a long life on DVD and TV and perhaps encourages audiences to seek out the films of the 1940s that informed it. After I finished writing this post, I came across the detailed piece on ‘Women and WWII British film’ by Stephen Woolley, one of the producers of the film, in Sight and Sound (May 2017) . He gives a great deal of information about the research for the film and mentions many more film titles and writing about film production in the wartime period. There is also an interview with Lone Scherfig.
Gemma Bovery faces similar problems to Tamara Drewe (UK 2010) but with the added twist that this is a French film – so a whole new range of assumptions and potential prejudices arise. Both films are adaptations of comic strips by Posy Simmonds which first appeared in the Guardian and then as ‘graphic novels’. Tamara Drewe is a modern take on Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and the new film, as the eponymous title suggests, is a re-imagining of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The story takes place in Normandy and the film is directed by Anne Fontaine from a script by Pascal Bonitzer (whose previous script was for Looking For Hortense 2012 – which he also directed).
The story demands a French setting but the other factor, which possibly escaped some UK reviewers, is that Tamara Drewe attracted bigger audiences in France than in the UK. A significant French audience segment is Anglophile and this overlaps with the audience for sophisticated social comedy. The plays of Alan Ayckbourn and the novels of Julian Barnes go down well in France. Posy Simmonds studied at the Sorbonne and her graphic novel (la bande dessinée) of Gemma Bovery also sold in France. French comedies lampoon the bourgeoisie and a director like Claude Chabrol found ways to be amusing while skewering the same middle classes in thrillers. Fabrice Luchini is one of the top comic actors in films like Bicycling with Molière, 2013 as well as François Ozon comedies such as Potiche, 2010 and In the House, 2012. No surprise then that he is cast in Gemma Bovery as the meddling observer, the Parisian publisher who retires to a village in Normandy to run his family’s bakery business. When he sees his new neighbours arriving from England and that the ravishing young woman is potentially a bored wife named ‘Gemma Bovery’ he is almost beside himself with joy.
Posy Simmonds set out in all her Guardian comic strips to gently critique the typical liberal Guardian-reading classes and in the process to pit them against grasping Thatcherite characters with their greed and lack of humanity – and often their cultural ignorance. This political subtext and the class analysis is partly why the two films struggle with UK audiences, some of whom might see themselves as the butt of the jokes. The aim of Gemma Bovery is to explore the impact of the English middle classes on French provincial life and in turn to imagine how a modern-day Madame Bovary might behave – and most of all, how she might feel about her own behaviour. Emma Bovary was an arriviste – a young woman from a farming family who married an older man, a doctor, for security and the respectable life and then bored by her new life, set out on a trail of adultery and indulgence. In the 21st century women’s horizons have widened and ‘shame’ doesn’t operate in quite the same way. As Gemma, Ms Arterton is ravishing. She seems more fun and generally more attractive than my fading memories of the comic strip. I think that a focus on costume design might be interesting and I do feel that Anne Fontaine has created another intriguing female character following her version of Coco Chanel with Audrey Tautou. The local haute bourgeoisie and the other ‘local’ English characters are truly hideous but I did feel for Jason Flemyng as ‘M. Bovary’ – an unenviable role.
I enjoyed the film but I wish my memories of the novel were more reliable. I got a lot of the jokes but I daresay I missed a few because I’d forgotten elements of the story. Gemma Arterton learned to speak French for the role and now she is listed as the lead in a new French film, currently in pre-production, Orpheline. That would mean that she would become a slightly surprising addition to the growing list of female actors who have embraced French filmmaking. Why so few men making the same move, I wonder?
The UK trailer: