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THEIR FINEST

“…perhaps the show-stealing role is taken by Bill Nighy with his comical portrayal of the puffed-up thespian figure, Ambrose Hiliard.” 

Wayward Wolf.

Lone Scherfig’s WWII drama, Their Finest, strikes well the tricky balance between romantic comedy and serious content. Barring a sudden entrance from Rowan Atkinson, War, after all, is probably not much of a laughing matter.

Catrin Cole (a delightful performance from Gemma Arterton), is the demure, softly spoken Welsh girl from Ebbw Vale. She has moved from the valleys to London along with her partner, Ellis Cole (Jack Huston), who feverishly attempts to establish himself as a fine artist of worth, having been promised opportunities within the field relating to the on-going war effort.

Life’s a struggle though. Financially-speaking, Catrin and Ellis can barely afford the rent, until that is she unexpectedly lands a job writing scripts for the British film industry. But the struggles are of a very different kind when it becomes apparent to Catrin that her writing talents are somewhat undervalued in her new role owing to her gender, and she is consigned to writing throwaway ‘female slop’ as opposed to anything that may be considered at all worth while.

Somehow though, through sheer hard work and a canny knack for saying the right thing, she lands herself an opportunity to co-write the script for a military propaganda piece, intended to lift the spirits of the allied forces. For this, Catrin joins a small team of writers, namely, Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter), and Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Buckley is a character that is hard to warm to. Tom’s initial negativity gives rise to friction between himself and Catrin, yet ultimately a fairly complex and involved relationship develops between the pair. The three of them are tasked with pulling together the script for a piece based vaguely upon true events. It is in many ways as ridiculous as it is inspirational, not helped by the constant meddling from those in lofty positions of military power, insistent upon shoe-horning in edits on a whim to suit each and every war ‘fad’ of the moment. Nonetheless, Catrin flourishes in her role and becomes an indispensable part of the set up.

All the while, bombs are falling around about her, over the City of London. The blitz, in full effect, makes for a surreal, hurdle-ridden backdrop to this rather charming tale.

Considering the setting and subject matter, it’ll come as no shock to suggest that there is something overwhelmingly British about Scherfig’s film in that Richard-Curtis-esque Four Weddings / Notting Hill fashion. Such an achievement is brought about chiefly through a collection of lightly-stereotyped, yet intriguing characters. As already mentioned, Arteton is excellent, whilst Huston and Claflin are well cast in their respective parts, but perhaps the show-stealing role is taken by Bill Nighy with his comical portrayal of the puffed-up thespian figure, Ambrose Hiliard.

Hanging on for grim death to the remnants of his acting career, Hilliard is deeply bitter of the fact that war has rather savaged what he’d anticipated would be his golden twilight years in film. His eccentric agent, Sammy Smith (Eddie Marsan) – complete with a dishevelled sheep’s head ensconced in his bag (a treat for his constant bull terrier companion) – is at best professionally adequate, but generally below par for the frustrated Hilliard’s career-needs. Living, as he does, in his own rose-tinted bubble of self-importance, yet more than aware of the slow, painful death of his career, the last thing that Hilliard needs is a pandering agent with relatively little clout in the industry.

Whilst it may well lack a little depth and consequently fall some way short of being considered a classic of British cinema, as far as bitter-sweet, and frequently poignant feel-good stories go, Lone Scherfig’s gentle tale of one girl’s single-minded determination to overcome the considerable odds stacked against her, is hugely enjoyable, and very possibly Gemma Arteton’s finest hour, to boot.

 

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FILM REVIEW: X+Y

Since the sudden death of her husband, Julie (Sally Hawkins) has been desperate in her quest for the same love and approval that her brilliant, autistic son Nathan (played by Asa Butterfield) had for his late father. Nathan’s a shy and socially bewildered boy; a mathematical genius and yet he’s simply unable to formulate the necessary equations in his mathematical mind to tackle life and its myriad unpredictabilities.

X+Y is essentially Nathan’s world and how his rather insular existence not only affects the people closest to him, but somehow allows them to confront their own issues and personal demons in one way or another.

When done well, these kind of British, slice-of-life dramas tend to be the perfect blend of charm, poignancy and dry wit, components that X+Y has in abundance.

Rafe Spall in particular is superb as Humphreys, Nathan’s sarcastic, wise-cracking personal tutor and although his humour is probably lost on Nathan and is in itself more of a coping mechanism for him to deal with his own frustrations at living with the debilitating effects of Multiple Sclerosis, it’s laugh-out-loud funny at times and the perfect antidote to Nathan’s occasional innocent, yet cutting, socially unaware outbursts.

When Nathan is chosen to represent British schools in the International Mathematical Olympiad in Taiwan, he is taken under the wing of no nonsense trip coordinator Richard, played by Eddie Marsan, whom, to my consistent shame, I can never seem to disassociate from his long past ‘Grange Hill’ days whenever I see him. He’s a whole lot better than that, clearly.

A whole new world of friendships, opportunities and experiences open up for Nathan here as he confronts both who he is and the social inadequacies that he struggles with, whilst Zhang Mei (a sweet performance by Jo Yang) enters his life and an innocent sort of forbidden, young love blossoms.

Morgan Matthews has cast the roles well and directs X + Y with great respect and affection.
I dislike the ‘feel-good’ label when attached to films, but in fairness, it’s pretty apt on this occasion. It’s not quite up there with the very best of British, but it’s a charming little piece nonetheless with its heart very firmly in the right place and that’s certainly no bad thing.

Well worth a watch.