Friday, 22 December 2017

Movie Review: Their Finest (2017)



www.thegaia.org
The plot: Screenwriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is asked by Britain’s Ministry of Information to make a film about two twin sisters who take their father’s boat out to help in the evacuation of Dunkirk. As she works closely with writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), they put together a film that they hope will meet the Ministry’s wishes for a production that will bring the nation together. However, as a series of uncontrollable events and mandates fall their way, up to and including being forced to include American Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy) into the film despite his lack of acting experience, they’ll have to work hard to make a uniting film before it tears them all apart.


Arterton is about as perfect a choice for our lead as we could possibly hope for, as she manages to convey quiet assertion with a pleasant demeanour and nimble wit that makes her feel like a person who could make the tough convincing needed to keep the film-within-the-film running. Claflin works very nicely alongside her, with the back-and-forths over the specifics of their script making for a large portion of film and a portion that is never not engaging. Richard E. Grant as the head of the Ministry of Information’s film division makes for a welcome addition, like pretty much any role taken up by Grant, and Jeremy Irons as the British Secretary of War makes for a good scene-stealing presence. As for the actors portraying actors, Nighy has a lot of fun as the very type-cast and quite pompous Hilliard, showing the kind of pretentious thinking that makes for entertainment rather than teeth-grinding, and Lacy as the token American (both in and out-of-universe) is very funny as the actor who can’t act.

As I got into earlier this month, the way we tend to categorize ‘propaganda’ is a bit misguided. Partly because it only seems to get brought up if it’s explicitly propaganda that we disagree with, ignoring similar fare that appeals to our sensibilities, but also because decrying cinematic propaganda ends up disregarding how much the art form owes to political propagandists. It got its first real push in Soviet Russia as a means to push communist ideology, and every single filmmaking technique can be traced back to their use in the Russian propaganda machine. It’s the dirty secret of filmmaking that’s so open that barely anyone considers it to be a secret. I bring this up because, in the way that this film portrays the making of a film that is explicitly meant to be propaganda for the British government, we see another example of why forms of propaganda can be necessary. When your country is entrenched in war, something needs to be presented to convince the populace to keep fighting. Or, to put it in more familiar terms, keep calm and carry on. Funny how that little phrase rarely gets brought up as an example of propaganda.

Far more than an ode to influencing the masses, this film shows the kind of understanding of the filmmaking process that you would expect from people who are heavily involved in it. Seeing Catrin and Tom agonizing over the script, trying to piece together a story that the Ministry would approve of, all while trying to juggle the numerous mandates they are given, it’s shown to be not that dissimilar to any other 9-to-5 occupation. It’s fun, it’s difficult, it’s taxing, it’s distracting, it’s minute, it’s grand, and it’s endlessly fascinating to watch as shown in this film. Whether it’s explaining the ins-and-outs of the production process, making in-jokes about the way that films are made like a scene where Dunkirk is depicted as still images on a sheet of glass in front of the camera, or looking at the varyingly difficult situations that the filmmakers have to work around to get things done, this film makes the act of making films to be as engrossing as the product itself. It does what films about films-within-films should do.

Have to admit, it’s kind of surreal seeing this film about the making of a film about the Dunkirk evacuation, considering we actually did get a film about Dunkirk in the same year. That feeling is only made stronger by how much this film delves into the line between reality and fiction, how they influence each other and just how much one is supposed to adhere to the other. It’s a tightrope that must be walked when dealing with any form of media based on real-world events, and it’s one that some people can get a little too hung-up on. If the core of what it makes real, the historical event and the emotions attached to it, is still there, then how many compromises can be made before it stops being real? If a film sets out to be entirely fiction, does its possible real-world influences even matter? Do any of these questions ultimately matter? Nolan’s Dunkirk could have been as real to life as humanly possible or it could have been completely fabricated; either way, the impact the film leaves is still the same. With this film, as we see the increasingly troubled and even tragic production history of the film-within-the-film, we also see creative license being employed for numerous reasons. But do any of those compromises make the impact it gets from the audience, the crying, the repeated viewings, the sense of pride in a national product… why should any of those be invalid? Because we are shown so much of what went into this product, and a lot of what didn’t, its ending makes one feel that all of it was worth what they got at the end. It’s a nice feeling when you know that you have done good work.

All in all, this is a very engaging look at the filmmaking process, made better by how it never really skimps on the details involved. The acting is solid, the production values employ the usual washed-out look for WWII-era London without it seeming stale at any point, and the writing highlights just how galvanizing a good film can be. Part of why this blog exists at all is because film has given me some of the most profound experiences of my relatively short life; I wanted to give something back to the culture that made me who I am today. As such, it’s pretty much impossible for me to dislike a film that portrays the power of good cinematic storytelling, especially when it’s presented through what is most definitely good cinematic storytelling.

It ranks higher than Sandy Wexler, as this film’s goals go beyond the personal and into the realm of doing a service to an entire art medium. As nice as it is to know that Sandler is back on the up-and-up, that isn’t as pleasing as what is essentially the British answer to Hail, Caesar!, which is what we get here. However, even though this was a lot more consistent in its positives, its ultimate sentiment doesn’t ring as strongly with me as Little Evil, which not only got me to fall for its narrative traps and made me thankful that I did. I’m usually more than happy to be proven wrong, but few films do so with that much panache.

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