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.
I’m not sure that I should write about An Education as my critical faculties more or less went out of the window after a few minutes of watching Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of a 16/17 year-old schoolgirl in the suburban London of the early 1960s. A great deal has already been said about her performance and I can only concur. Her impact in this film can only be compared to Julie Christie’s in Billy Liar or, more recently, Reese Witherspoon in Election or Ellen Page in Juno.
For the uninitiated, Carey Mulligan was 22 when she started work on An Education after supporting roles in UK TV drama productions, including classic serial adaptations of Dickens and Austen. Ironically, she and Rosamund Pike – her co-star in An Education – both played as sisters to Kiera Knightley in the recent Pride and Prejudice film (UK 2005). I think Ms Knightley might be looking over her shoulder now (and she has the chance in Never Let Me Go, currently filming with Knightley and Mulligan in leading roles). But perhaps we should be wary of conferring star status quite so quickly. Also in the cast list of An Education is Olivia Williams, one of several bright and gifted young British actors who went to Hollywood with high hopes and despite some very good performances (e.g. in Rushmore (US 1999)) never quite made it in the big league.
Anyway, enough gushing. If you are outside the UK, you might need a bit of background to this film which several commentators have suggested will be on Nomination Lists for Awards in the New Year. That is, if you didn’t already know that Carey Mulligan was pronounced as the ‘It Girl’ of this year’s Sundance Festival where An Education was a big hit. The narrative is based on a short memoir by the journalist Lynn Barber that first appeared in the literary magazine Granta (and has subsequently been expanded and published by Penguin – if you don’t mind spoilers, Lynn Barber explains the whole story in the Guardian). The adaptation took several years to be teased into shape by Nick Hornby, the well-known novelist whose other film work includes adaptations of his own novels, Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About a Boy – all in their own terms successful small films. But Hornby has generally been seen as a ‘new man’, ‘young Dad’ kind of writer. Would he be able to write a convincing script about a bright schoolgirl in an earlier era? Hiring a woman to direct must have seemed a good idea, but Lone Scherfig as a Dane of a similar age possibly faced the same problems as Hornby. Although she has worked in the UK for some time, as far as I know, Scherfig is more familiar with working-class Glaswegians than the lower middle class in Twickenham (she created the characters for Andrea Arnold’s Red Road). But I guess that the story is universal and since Barber is such a good writer, the raw material was probably all there. Nevertheless, hats off to Hornby and Scherfig who provide the support/direction for Mulligan’s performance.
An Education is a clever title for an unusual ‘coming of age’ story. Jenny is a bright girl and seemingly destined for a place at Oxford. But this is 1961, that very strange and quite precise period in the UK before the explosion of creativity after 1963. The country was virtually out of austerity but hadn’t yet been given the signal to get started on the real social revolution. Life was pleasant, but not exciting. That’s not to say that the country hadn’t changed since 1945. If you were an intelligent working-class or lower middle class teenager, for the first time you now did have the option, as a grammar school boy or girl, of working hard and getting free higher education (read and weep if you are a current student). The numbers who were able to take advantage were small but significant.
Jenny has a chance encounter with an older man who seduces her into his very upmarket roadster (a Bristol, no less) and then cons Jenny’s parents into letting him take her to concerts, dinners and more. The parents in the film are played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour and they do good jobs in what are very difficult roles. I think the writing of the parental roles is nearly always the weakest part of these stories. The narrative always obliges us to focus on the exciting possibilities of youth – never on the feelings of parents who have struggled through the war and austerity and now see their unthinking offspring breaking free from the boredom of suburbia. There’s a different kind of film to be made about that.
There are several important incidents in the film that pin down the period and which need a little explanation. ‘Popping over’ to Paris was still a very exotic thing to do in 1961. You had to be either very rich or up to no good or a modern languages student on an exchange or a school trip. Jenny has a romantic weekend in Paris at the high point of the French New Wave – which she has been experiencing on trips to arthouse cinemas in London. The obverse of this is the film’s accurate and now very shocking references to the blatant racism/colour bar in London and its exploitation by the notorious Peter Rachman, who would later emerge as a key figure in the Profumo Affair in 1963. This reference points towards Scandal (UK 1989) the undervalued Michael Caton-Jones film that features Joanne Whalley and Bridget Fonda as ‘goodtime girls’ Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. There are moments in Jenny’s seduction into the world of conmen, racketeers and high living (especially those with Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike) that are reminiscent of Scandal – the costumes in particular are a very good indicator of period.
The Profumo Affair was in many ways the moment of catharsis in British social life. It saw the collapse of the Tory Cabinet and paved the way for the Labour victory in 1964 and all the social legislation that followed. Jenny’s story would not have quite the same impact six or seven years later during the ‘Swingin Sixties’ period in London (roughly 1965-9). Having said that, Darling (UK 1965) with Julie Christie would make an interesting comparison with An Education. On the whole though, the later 1960s films feature working-class girls from the North coming to London and discovering an exciting life.
Back to An Education, I don’t think it is a perfect film. I think the relatively restricted budget shows in continuity errors and an unconvincing rain scene for the crucial first meeting (an almost surreal summer rainstorm perhaps). The final sequence seems truncated and oddly unsatisfying and I think that there are tonal shifts elsewhere that are unsettling. This is inevitable I think given the mix of youth picture, romance, comedy and social commentary. To my taste, Emma Thompson as Jenny’s headteacher is just too much and it seems so unfair to constrain the beautiful Olivia Williams in a role as a repressed English teacher. I understand why the producers want to use star names in small roles to attract audiences, but for me the film would work better with less well-known actors in these roles. One other possible irritation is the music. The original recordings are well chosen: Billy Fury, Floyd Cramer, Brenda Lee (‘Sweet Nothings’ – terrific), Mel Tormé (inspired), Ray Charles, Percy Faith and Juliette Greco. The modern stuff by Beth Rowley and Duffy is fine, but it sounds ‘retro’ – again it seems to be a nod towards younger audiences? The score is by Paul Englishby who is highly regarded, but the score didn’t work for me.
You can hear some of the music on the official website and in the (very good) trailer below with Floyd Cramer and Ray Charles in the background.
In this American trailer you get some of the score and a Beth Rowley song:
Here’s Carey Mulligan in a Toronto Film Festival interview with some interesting comments on her role:
I hope that this film gets used in A Level classes as it promises to open up interesting debates about the changing representations of young women and about a crucial period of British social history. It also offers many links to British Cinema’s other attempts to represent the 1960s. An analysis of Carey Mulligan’s rapid rise also looks possible and an extensive fansite is already available.