It may have been a bleak period in human history, but the Second World War was a golden age for British cinema, as filmmakers discovered purpose and commitment in stories of resistance, fortitude and togetherness. 'An Education' director Lone Scherfig's witty, sophisticated and unexpectedly sober romcom pays tribute to those artists – writers, actors, directors, producers, even agents – and slips in a spry, timely investigation of women's roles in cinema for good measure.
Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) comes to the attention of the Ministry of Information as a copywriter for newspaper cartoons. They're looking for someone to script a series of propaganda short films urging the women of Britain to work in factories and grow vegetables, and she's looking for a way to support her moody artist boyfriend Ellis (Jack Huston). But it's not long before Catrin is assisting writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) on an inspirational feature film script inspired by a pair of Southend sisters who stole their father's boat and headed to Dunkirk to assist in the evacuation. The story is largely bunk, the Ministry brass are always lurking and washed-up leading man Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) is forever sticking his oar in. But Catrin and Buckley get stuck in, transforming this simple fable into a rousing tribute to everyday British pluck.
Like its film-within-a-film, 'Their Finest' might so easily have been sentimental hogwash, a jolly, stiff-upper-lipped love story set against the picturesque setting of London in the blitz: 'War, Actually'. But while she's thoroughly committed to serving both the rom and the com (the film is genuinely sweet, and at times very funny) Scherfig somehow never falls into any of the obvious traps.
Catrin may be the archetypal spirited-gal-with-gumption, but Buckley is by no means her traditional romantic foil: he's prickly, chauvinistic and sometimes cruel, while still just about managing to retain our sympathy. Nighy's subplot starts out as light relief – the faded acting giant who can't believe he's no longer a matinee idol – but grows into something genuinely moving. And the war never becomes a backdrop: this London is cold and frightening, with death falling from the sky without warning.
There's a little too much going on at times, and one awkwardly handled last-act shock throws things off balance. But the film claws its way back for a quiet but honestly earned finale, a reminder of the power of stories to make life worth living, even in the most brutal circumstances. It's hardly a new idea, but it bears repeating.