British dramas tend to be very different from American ones in the sense that they keep their emotions much closer to the chest. That is, rather than having the actors express their emotions in their fullest range, British dramas like to be subdued and allow the drama of the situation take precedence over the emotional reaction of the actors. Your mileage with how relatable you find this mode of storytelling may vary, but Their Finest is definitely as emotionally subdued as they come, and that is unfortunately largely to its detriment.
After the Blitzkrieg in World War II, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) applies for what she thinks is a secretarial position with the Ministry of Information, only to find herself mixed in amongst the screenwriting staff for the government’s latest propaganda film, designed to boost morale for a population that is continually bombed on a daily basis. She is paired with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) on a script that desperately needs a woman’s perspective, and the two develop a working relationship that slowly evolves into a close and loving friendship.
If you’re looking for a film about the egotism and aggravating compromise of the screenwriting process, then there are few films outside the eccentricities of the Coen Brothers or Charlie Kaufman that capture the troubles of writing for film. Though their story is based in fact, new details are shoved in for the sake of story cohesion to the point where the original tale is unrecognizable, though it ultimately makes for a better film. Catrin isn’t initially allowed to write the female leads are heroic, instead forced to let a male love interest save them, only to fight against that sexist assumption of what an audience wants to craft a progressive tale of feminine strength. And, of course, there’s the terror of studio interference, wherein an American with no acting experience is inserted into the film in order to appeal to a foreign market. These are issues that writers deal with today that are immediately relatable, and they serve as a functional basis on which to basis a wartime plot that has little to directly do with the war itself.
But alas, that touted British restraint—a quality that the film itself touts as superior to American cinema—is actually what holds this film back. As real as Catrin and company’s struggles are, it’s hard to get worked up when the entire breadth of their emotions ranges from awkward chuckles to silent tears. None of the performances are bad. In fact, there’s actually a pretty memorably great performance from Bill Nighy as a difficult actor who steals the show both in this film and the film within the film. But the actors have all been directed to keep the energy as low-key as possible, which has much more potential to bore than it does to evoke realism.
Ultimately, I liked Their Finest as a historical look at the moviemaking process, and the character drama adds a nice skeletal structure with which to explore that. But to be frank, this story is inherently a bit melodramatic, so it would have been nice to see some of the performances reflect that melodrama. That British restraint the film is so proud of is what keeps it from achieving any level of greatness.