It is London during the Blitz. A woman rushes home during an air raid. A bomb blast knocks her over. The dust settles, and to her horror she finds herself in the midst of rubble and dismembered bodies. Then she laughs: They are mannequins from a shop window. Except for one.
At its best, which is often, “Their Finest” by Danish director Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners;” “An Education”) manipulates appearance and reality, relief and recognition, with exquisite finesse. As befits a film about making films.
Catrin (a tough and fragile Gemma Arterton) lives with her artist lover in a grimy garret. He has no luck selling his paintings, cityscapes that are more desolate than the battered city itself. So, to make the rent, she applies for and gets a job with the Ministry of Information. She thinks it’s a secretarial position, but it’s really something else. She’s a screenwriter; she’s been hired to write the “slop” — woman’s dialogue — but soon she’s writing much more.
So far the propaganda films in the theaters have left audiences bored and derisive. The ministry wants product that is both “realistic and optimistic,” which requires a woman’s touch, and not that of Leni Riefenstahl. So Catrin is assigned to Buckley (Sam Claflin), an ace scripter, and soon they make a wise-cracking team like a pairing by Howard Hawkes, but smudgier.
Their challenge: Turn the anticlimactic story of twin sisters who sailed their father’s tug to Dunkirk to bring the boys back home into a rah-rah tearjerker. But, as one studio person puts it, their real assignment is to turn an epic military retreat into a triumph of the spirit that will bolster the morale of the people — and win the sympathy of the still-neutral Americans.
Scherfig does justice to the making of the film within the film with the minimum of snarkiness and sentiment. Unfortunately, the gears of her own story sometimes squeak; especially egregious is a tragic deus-ex-machina. But the secret of a good film, as fast-learning Catrin points out and Scherfig expertly demonstrates, is in the details.
Another tip: Find a role for Bill Nighy. As the foppish-but-wise, washed-up thespian Ambrose, his rendition of the ballad “Wild Mountain Thyme” alone makes his film worth seeing. More than once.
Directed by Lone Scherfig. Written by Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel by Lissa Evans. Starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, West Newton. 117 minutes. R (some language and a scene of sexuality).
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.