Here's an unusual movie concept -- a young woman making her way as a screenwriter in 1940 London as the Luftwaffe is bombing English cities to soften up the country for an eventual German invasion.
The improbable juxtaposition of the two themes -- a country in peril and the hilarious obstacles faced in making a let's-all-pull-together film -- works very well.
As "Their Finest" opens, Catrin Cole applies for what she believes is a secretarial job and finds herself hired to write "the slop," women's themes in a feature movie. She is paid less than men, but the fact that virtually all the men are in the military has given rise to her opportunity in the first place.
Cole is sent to interview two young women, twin sisters, who took the family boat to participate in the Dunkirk rescue, when more than 300,000 Allied soldiers, driven to the French coast by Nazi forces, were picked up by navy ships, fishing boats and other small craft and conveyed to England to fight another day.
Unfortunately, the sisters' story is not quite the heroic one that is wanted by the filmmakers.
No matter. Cole, who wants the job, manages to massage the material she has into something workable. She teams with an affable older writer and a younger man, a melancholy critic in glasses, to create a step chart of scenes that are pasted on a story board and then rendered in dialogue.
The British military leaders have many suggestions about how the movie should be written. An aging and vain actor, also available because all the young guys are in the army, needs constantly to have his personal concerns assuaged. A blond American soldier with no acting chops is inserted into the story at a late moment in hopes the movie will drum up U.S. military support.
Any of these interferences could destroy the project; not many good stories are written by committees, after all. Cole proves herself able to make plot adjustments on the fly as well as to craft essential parts of the screenplay.
Over time, her critical colleague admits, "You're doing a good job." A palpable romantic tension develops.
The film cuts between events in Cole's personal life and London bombings as the plot is built, and then the film-within-a-film group goes on location to shoot exterior scenes.
One peripheral character in the "Their Finest" serves initially as the irritating liaison between Cole's film crew and the military. She is a tough broad in pants, and her role grows as she helps move some late-introduced events along. Somewhere in this period, she says what seems to be the theme of "Their Finest." It is this:
"It seems to me when life is so very precious it's an awful shame to waste it."
Given the moment and setting, this makes sense. As seems to be the theme of many many movies today, which perhaps is appropriate catchup for decades when it was not so, a woman proves herself against multiple challenges.
The movie is interesting and nicely paced. Its supporting characters are all well played and add to the enjoyment.
A final point: I may be the only one here, but I found two plot points about Cole's personal life, dropped in at about the 70 percent and 90 percent marks, pretty darn strained. Critics generally regarded these as nits at most, but to me they seemed heavy-handed and artificial. I would have preferred smoother story development.
Still, I like the movie.
The movie title comes from Winston Churchill's speech before the House of Commons just after Dunkirk. It starts with acknowledgement that the retreat from the mainland of Europe was "a colossal disaster," then details all the previous difficulties and those that lie ahead.
Churchill then vows "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets . . . ." and winds up with this:
"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'"