Over the past two weeks, I’ve seen the two best movies of 2017 (so far). One you’ve probably heard of; it’s a big budget, heavily advertised summer blockbuster. The other didn’t even play at our local theaters. And both, interestingly, deal with the same subject matter, the evacuation that came to be known as the “Miracle at Dunkirk.”
Dunkirk, writer/director Christopher Nolan’s new film, has been impressing movie-goers and film critics alike—and with good reason. Nolan, best known for The Dark Knight/Batman trilogy and Inception, has mated skillful story-telling with masterful film-making. Working from his own screenplay, the director shows us what it was like on the open beaches as the British and French soldiers waited desperately for a rescue that might never come. Unlike many of the World War II epics produced in the 1960s and ‘70s, Nolan’s feature is concerned not with grand strategy or the back stories of his characters (most of whom aren’t even named)– but with the singular fights for survival that are the legacy of war. In telling the story on the beach, on the sea and in the air, Nolan skillfully stitches the threads of three timelines, weaving them with an artistry that results in a harrowing tapestry of war. Dunkirk is a powerful reminder that big events—and there is none bigger than the Second World War—are composed of millions of individual stories.
Their Finest, by contrast, is more modest–actually a film within a film. Based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, this finely-crafted British production tells the story of the Ministry of Information’s efforts to inspire the home front at the height of the Blitz. With German bombs raining down nightly on London’s beleaguered citizens, the ministry’s film office is looking for a story that will convey “optimism and authenticity.”
Catrin (Gemma Arterton) is a secretary, who, while filling in for a male colleague sent off to war, demonstrates a talent for writing. As a result, she is assigned to work in the ministry’s film division. When she discovers the story of Lily and Rose, twin sisters who commandeered their father’s fishing boat and sailed for Dunkirk, her supervisor, Buckley (Sam Claflin), tasks her to write the “slops,” the women’s dialogue. Ambrose Hilliard, a vain has-been played to scene-stealing perfection by Bill Nighy, is cast as the twin’s hard-drinking Uncle Frank. When, at the insistence of the secretary for war, an American amateur is introduced into the cast, the film appears headed for a Dunkirk-like calamity. But Hilliard, inspired by Catrin, steps up to tutor his cast mate in the actor’s art.
Unlike Nolan’s Dunkirk, which relies on magnificent images, Their Finest makes wonderful use of dialogue, evoking the tight banter of screwball comedies and classics like Casablanca. There are complications of course—from Catrin’s relationship status to ministry interference to the miseries of life under the constant threat of bombardment and the simmering sexual tension between Catrin and Buckley . Despite all this, the film-within-the film, entitled The Nancy Starling, makes it to the screen. Authentic? Not so much. Optimistic? Definitely—and what’s more, inspiring.
In a poignant scene near the end of the movie, Hilliard asks Catrin: “Have you seen our film yet?” “No,” she replies. “It’s good,” he says. “I’m awfully good.” He pauses. “And so are you.” So is Their Finest.
Dunkirk, Warner Brothers, 106 minutes, PG-13.
Their Finest, BBC Films, 117 minutes, R.