Monday, 10 July 2017

Their Finest (4½ Stars)

If you say that nobody likes war you're wrong. The film industry loves war. If there had never been any wars thousands of films would never have been made. There have been wars for hundreds of years, and several large wars in the last century, but the war most commonly featured in films is the Second World War. Many films are true stories, but there have been even more fictional stories set during the war. WW2 is a fascinating backdrop for dramatic productions, something that people can relate to even now, 72 years since the end of the war.

Hollywood was fast to cash in on the war. As early as October 1939, one month after the beginning of the war, "Hitler: Beast of Berlin" was made. Interestingly, the film was banned in America for being too inflammatory, the 1930's euphemism for hate speech. At the time America wanted to remain neutral, so it was considered inappropriate to insult the German leader. A year later American sentiment was turning against Germany, so "The Great Dictator" could be made, but even then caution was taken. The dictator's name was Adomine Hynkel and his country was called Tomania, even though it was plainly obvious, nudge nudge wink wink, who was really meant.

It was easy for America to make films about the war while it was ongoing, even after it entered the war in 1941, because it didn't affect their own country. The Hollywood studios weren't being bombed, so it was business as usual. From 1942 to 1945 America made 150 films about the war. Business was booming. When the war ended there was a slump, and only 12 war films were made from 1946 to 1949. Without an active war going on in Europe the American public lost interest.

A relatively small number of films were still being made in England, some about the war, some about other topics. England was under constant attack from 1940 onwards, so it was difficult for the film industry to continue. It wasn't just a matter of the studios being bombed; many actors left to fight in the war.

This sets the stage for "Their Finest". It begins in 1940 in London. The Ministry of Information is responsible for making propaganda films. Most of them are short films which are shown in cinemas between the B-Film and the main feature. They are intended to motivate those not fighting in the war, mostly women, to do something for the war effort, such as working in factories making bullets. The films are so ridiculous that the audiences laugh at them. The Ministry of Information finally comes to the conclusion that if the propaganda films are targeting women a woman should be hired to write them.

Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is hired on the basis of political cartoons she has drawn. The sexism of the time is so blatant that it's hilarious. "The wages for this job are three pounds ten shillings a week. We can't pay you that much because you're a woman, so you'll get two pounds". After making a few short films Catrin is given a bigger project. The newspapers have reported about two young women, Rose and Lily Starling, who rescued 20 soldiers from Dunkirk in their father's boat. This will be made into a full length feature film to encourage women to do more. Catrin goes to interview the sisters and finds out that the story is untrue; it was a misunderstanding by the press. Their boat broke down before it reached Dunkirk, and it was towed back by another rescue boat. Nevertheless, Catrin thinks that the story should be told as reported by the newspapers. When a propaganda film is made the truth is secondary. It's easy to accuse the propaganda of foreign totalitarian countries as lies, but England too can lie if it's considered necessary to boost public morale.

The film is supposed to show female heroism, but when the initial script is presented it's too extreme for Catrin's male bosses. The father of the two girls has to accompany them on the boat. Then it's necessary for Rose's lover Johnny to be among the soldiers rescued from Dunkirk. After all, a woman could never be heroic enough to risk her life for strangers, could she? On the return journey Johnny has to perform any essential feats of heroism, because he's a man and that's what men do. Then it's decided that the film should also be used to encourage America to join the war, so a well-known American fighter pilot who has volunteered for the Royal Air Force is asked to play a leading role, even though he lacks any acting skill. It's not Catrin's film any more.

Through a string of circumstances -- spoilers! -- Catrin manages to regain control of the film. It becomes the feminist classic that she intended. The result is a film that can motivate both women and men to do great things.

The film is carried by the brilliant performance of Gemma Arterton as Catrin. She's the best English actress who has ever lived. She can skilfully reveal her emotions by underplaying them. As a woman of the 1940's she's being suppressed by the male-dominated society. She knows what's expected of her and she conforms, but her strength is visible beneath the surface.

The film is a comedy with subtle humour. Evidently it was too subtle for the Germans in the cinema tonight. I laughed, they didn't.

Did you notice the error in the film poster that I reproduced at the beginning of this post? Whether the official flag of the United Kingdom, the Union Jack, is meant to be portrayed upright or on its side, it's incorrect. The image in the poster's background is symmetrical, but every British schoolchild knows that the flag is not symmetrical. It's not easy to draw correctly. When I was in junior school we had to practise drawing it, but art was never my strong subject. Today it's easy. I just have to copy and paste an image from the World Wide Web.

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