Lone Scherfig’s sweet-natured story is all about the love that flowers in the ruins of the blitz and the dusty offices of the Ministry of Information film unit
April 20, 2017
You’d need a heart of stone and a funny bone of porridge not to enjoy this sweet-natured and eminently lovable British film – a 1940s adventure, with moments of brashness and poignancy. It’s all about the love that flowers in the ruins of blitz-hit London and in the dusty offices of the Ministry of Information’s film unit as various high-minded creative types use the magic of cinema to keep the nation’s pecker up.
These people are looking for real stories of plucky civilian defiance to inspire the population and keep them undaunted in the face of Adolf’s aggression. And they’re applying the Liberty Valance rules about printing the legend when the truth isn’t sufficiently rousing.
It’s about romance in a setting of wartime propaganda – actually, it’s about the romance of wartime propaganda – adapted by Gaby Chiappe from Lissa Evans’s novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, and directed by Lone Scherfig. They have created a tasty array of roles in period garb with period chat, for both the lead and supporting characters, in which latter category there’s a simply outrageous part for Bill Nighy: a colossally proportioned scene-stealer.
Nighy plays Ambrose Hilliard, a cravat-wearing actor of a certain age whose finest hour, professionally speaking, was 10 years before the war, when he was cast as a brilliant police inspector in a popular series of thrillers. Now he is a thespian of advancing years and retreating fame who is livid when his agent Sammy, tremendously played by Eddie Marsan, suggests over lunch that he should be playing the drunk old uncle and not the romantic lead in a new film about Dunkirk. Sammy implores Ambrose to remain calm and his client replies, with jaw-clenching restraint: “I am calm. What you are seeing is controlled anger, tempered with icy detachment.”
Gemma Arterton plays the clever and industrious Catrin Cole, inspired by the real-life Ealing screenwriter Diana Morgan, who has been seconded to war work in the film unit on the condescending grounds that she can turn out “slop”: plausible women’s dialogue for the female characters. She’s on a lower pay grade than the men, despite being more talented than the lot of them.
Sharp-faced bureaucrat Roger Swain (Richard E Grant) and Korda-esque producer Gabriel Baker (Henry Goodman) are yearning for a real story to light a fire in the nation’s hearts, and head writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) thinks he’s found one: twin sisters who live on the coast pinched their boozy old dad’s boat to join in the heroic Dunkirk rescue. Catrin goes to interview them and finds it not quite as heroic as all that, but she spins the story into golden schmaltz and finds that grumpy Tom might just be falling in love with her. Her own situation is complicated, and then the men from the ministry chuck a spanner in the works by declaring the story needs a lantern-jawed American character to help persuade Uncle Sam to join in the war.
It’s a film unashamedly and cheerfully in love with the conjuring tricks and artifice of cinema. There’s a showstopping matte shot of massed troops on the Dunkirk beach, painted on to glass, and a demonstration of how dubbing and editing can create an illusion of physical presence. Truffaut talked about la nuit americaine – here’s a film about la nuit britannique, a very British kind of film magic. In an earlier scene, Amanda Root plays an actress wearing a hat that recalls Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, and later there’s a scene next to a mocked-up third-class railway carriage.
Arterton brings a rather beautiful kind of restraint to her role; it’s a part to inspire gallantry and Claflin’s Tom rises to the occasion in his maladroit male way. But Nighy, inevitably, owns every scene he’s in, especially in the one in which he infuriates the entire crew by singing his Nicholas Craig-style vocal warm-up routine in the bathroom of the cottage where they’re staying on location, trilling repeatedly about a “pretty copper kettle”. When Sammy’s sister Sophie (Helen McCrory) tells him he’s still a handsome man, Nighy does a subtle series of bird-like head movements before answering simply: “Yes.” And after shooting has wrapped, Nighy’s singing of Wild Mountain Thyme in the pub is rather fine; he gets the crew to sing as well. I felt like joining in, too.