Their Finest – A Splendid Romance That Celebrates The Importance Of Cinema

One of the overriding aspects to Their Finest, is the deep and pure appreciation of the craft of filmmaking, celebrating the collective experience of not only making a movie, but indulging in one, together. What heightens this notion, is that we’re looking back into a time when cinema meant more than it ever has in Britain.

Though long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2009, Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half went under the radar somewhat, it inspired powerhouse producers Amanda Posey and Stephen Woolley to bring it to the Big Screen seven years later.

In the midst of the devastating Second World War, with increasing numbers of men drafted to fight for their lives on the frontline, bombs continued to drop relentlessly on London. Those left behind, made up predominantly of women, children and the elderly, were in need of something uplifting they could relate to. As a result movies became a crucial outlet to help raise the spirits of the nation during this bleak time. Going to the pictures gave an opportunity to reach out to the community and to provide hope and optimism, but audiences demanded realism.

Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) a smart copywriter, is employed to write female dialogue, (patronisingly referred to as ‘slop’ by her male co writers), for original propaganda feature films that would reflect the new mood of the nation, and help tap into the hearts and imaginations of the fast growing women’s workforce. Partnered alongside fellow screenwriter, the forthright Buckley (Sam Claflin), the pair become enamoured with one particular patriotic tale; of twin sisters who set out to sea in their drunken father’s rickety old boat to rescue brave, wounded soldiers in Dunkirk.

It is through the power of film and her new found love of Buckley that Catrin’s eyes are opened to who she truly is and the possibility of starting a new life, after all, if there is one thing she has learnt from her time spent in the film industry, it’s that the show must always go on.

Amanda Posey

Amanda Posey

Amanda Posey had originally begun her career in the film industry working for Stephen Woolley, and has since enjoyed success, having been Oscar-nominated for An Education, and more recently for Brooklyn.

Stephen Woolley

Stephen Woolley

Woolley, who came fresh off the back of the multi Oscar nominated Carol, is an eminent producer longstanding in the British film industry, Oscar nominated for The Crying Game. He has also produced Interview With A Vampire and Made in Dagenham.

As a Londoner renowned for his historical films of the city, he was drawn to the subject matter and period, as well as the cinematic content and superb prose writing of Lissa’s novel. However, it was the combination of Lissa’s amazing character portrayals and clever humour that hooked him.

“I loved the book so much it set me off to find out whether the rights were free for Number 9, only to discover that somebody else was bidding for them, and that person was Amanda,” said Woolley.

Finding A Screenwriter

Posey then explained how she first became enamoured by this novel, and why she felt that Gaby Chiappe, who had yet to pen a feature length film, was so perfect for the job.

Gaby Chiappe

Gaby Chiappe

“I had read two of Lissa’s previous novels and really loved her writing, so I had always been interested,” she explained. “It has incredible richness and depth in its detail, I loved the evocation of that period of the war. It was shining a light on a part of British film history that had been rarely seen and interrogated before, but doing it in the context of this story, of a young woman developing her skills as a writer and learning about life and love through that collaborative process of writing and making a film.”

“I then discovered that Gaby, who was entirely a TV writer, wanted to adapt it, but I was really impressed by her take on it. At this point I hadn’t optioned the book, but then I got a call from Stephen, and he proposed that instead of us fighting it out, why don’t we try and do it together. We thought it would be wonderful to collaborate in this way. It was a happy coincidence that we were both drawn to it at the same time.”

Woolley admits that initially he was unsure about leaving a project of this magnitude in the hands of an inexperienced screenwriter, but executive producer Christine Langan at BBC Films and Amanda were so enthusiastic about Gaby’s talent and suitability for the job that, “In the back of my mind, I thought that if it didn’t work out that we could get another, more experienced film writer. But Gaby did such a brilliant job in making the script the story we wanted, while keeping all the elements that were so important to us. And once we were lucky enough to hook up with a director as talented and skilled as Lone we never looked back.”

Lone Scherfig, the director of Their Finest, felt that Chiappe’s experience on the smaller screen informed this screenplay, particularly when tasked with adapting such an intricate narrative with a myriad of characters and intersecting stories.

Lone Scherfig

Lone Scherfig

“Because of Gaby’s long running television background, she trusts that you can tell very complex stories, and you could easily make two feature films from the original book. It’s a very rich script, packed with detail. Still, Gaby’s writing is quite minimal, leaving lots of space to make stylistic decisions and move the script onto a bigger, more generous, but less forgiving screen.

Chiappe, who claimed that “the divide between whether people are screenwriters or telly writers is artificial”, shadows the sentiments of the two producers, claiming it was Evans’ humour that initially drew her in, while she explains how surreal the entire experience has been for her.

“Lissa’s sense of humour tickles me. It’s affectionate but incredibly incisive, it’s not without rigour. She manages to be warm and funny and the humour isn’t nasty, it’s sly. Even when the story was painful the novel was still funny,” she continued. “The whole experience felt unreal. The day I went down to the read-through, I just couldn’t quite take it in, there were a bunch of incredibly famous people sitting round a table reading a script that I had written, it just didn’t feel real.”

“Even when I watch it, knowing what will happen and what every character is going to say, it still feels like watching a film, I felt detached in the best possible way. It doesn’t look like the film that was inside my head, that only exists in my imagination. There’s a little period where you have to let go of the reels you’ve been running in your mind and embrace the one that actually exists.”


The Characters

In Evans’ original novel there are three paramount characters we follow, Catrin, Ambrose and Edith – and the latter has been entirely cut out from this adaptation though parts of her are revived in the character of Phyl. As Woolley explains, the focus had to remain on Catrin, and certain sacrifices were needed in order to accommodate that.

“We meticulously recreated the characters from the book as well as we could, but we also realised that it had to be a journey, so we made it about Catrin, and her relationship with Buckley, which became the central spine of the film script,” he continued. “We lost Edith because there was no way we could fit her story in as well, and something had to be dropped. We were also keen to make it a modern story. War films made at the time did generally tend to reflect the male experience of war, so we wanted to make a film that was not just the female experience of becoming a writer, but a female experience of being in the Blitz in London and coping with a society that was on the brink of changing from being so male-dominated, to being a society were women weren’t just tolerated, they were expected to step into the breach and take on male roles in society. Not just in the world of film, but the world around them.”

Establishing The Tone

To craft a film that maintains a sense of ineffable enchantment, while at the same time not compromising on the sheer severity of war, to interject humour and tragedy in a compatible way, is by no means an easy task. For Amanda Posey, getting that balance completely right was a primary concern.

“The authentic darkness of war is always reflected visually and in the story,” she said. “There’s a careful grouping of difficulties that puncture the film, that remind you all the time there is a matter of life and death happening underneath all of this, and it stops it ever becoming too frivolous, to always remain respectful to the truth of the time,” she explained. “But it was a concern and something that influenced our attitude to the CGI, the locations, the costumes, everything.”

Tonally, the feature was left in rather accomplished hands, and Scherfig explained that a narrative of this nature is what she thrives in as a filmmaker.

“I almost always use the humour as a crowbar into something more serious and vice versa,” she said. For this film, I designed a fairly strict model most artistic decisions from all departments could be based on, but from then on loosened up in order to ensure the humour and give people artistic license. I can get idiosyncratic with small elements or be thrilled with details cast or crew suggest, but most importantly I need to create an atmosphere where the humor and trust can thrive, which has to do with choosing your battles.”

For all of the devastation caused during the Second World War, there was also a sense of community amongst those left back in Britain, and this was a vital notion that the two producers were determined to get across.

“That generation often referred to the war as being the best time of their lives because this was a time when everybody pulled together and had a common purpose,” said Posey.

“I love the interweaving of the story set against the Blitz and the making of a film, as it’s exactly the same spirit that you take to a communal artistic endeavour, especially one where your backs are against the wall.”

Woolley was quick to agree with his colleague on the matter, “Life has got to be loved and enjoyed and got on with, you can’t think about what you might do tomorrow anymore, because tomorrow might not be there. That brings a community together. Our days might be numbered but at least let’s enjoy the days we have left. It’s a terrible thing to say about war, but there’s a joyous side to it, which is that community does come together and we wanted to celebrate that.”

“There was a huge amount of laughter and a huge amount of grin and bear it, but that was all masking the reality of husbands and brothers and fathers and sons all going off to war and dying. There’s a constant reminder of that throughout the film and that’s really important for the tone. We could have made the film as a comedy, but you have to know that death is present, and that life is precious and you can’t just stop, you have to carry on and enjoy it, and still be ambitious and still find humour.”

Sam Claflin, who plays Buckley, was also aware of the spirit in the UK at the time, and how essential it is that Their Finest is on hand to reflect that.

“Not everyone was depressed, people went to the cinema, they wanted to laugh, and there were people writing the scripts to make people laugh. It wasn’t just the soldiers who won the war, the people on the ground did too, everyone was in it together.”

His co-star Bill Nighy, who plays the indelible comic creation of Ambrose Hilliard, an ageing, conceited thespian, was aware that in spite of the evident spirit, it remains a delicate line to walk. “There’s an enormous nostalgia for that period, and yet had you lived through it, it would have been an incredibly tough and tragic time, where hundreds of thousands of people of died in London and there was a constant threat that you might not wake up tomorrow, or your family might be killed, and people lived with that for six years,” he said.

“The idea there was something bigger than everything gave people something other than their own concerns to attend to, and it freed them in a way. People are resilient in times of great peril, and they still find time to moan about stuff, or to fall in love or to have a laugh.”

“I was accustomed to stories about that time from my mother and father, and the script is very clever, it’s sophisticated and it gives you a very detailed and specific idea of how an average day might have been during the Blitz, if there was such a thing.”

The task of balancing the charm with the bleak sense of reality was left in the hands of Chiappe, and she felt similarly to Nighy, uncomfortable about romanticising about the war, and yet ensuring that the palpable sense of community came through in the screenplay.

“People remained who they were, there was a certain stoicism which you choose to see as being heroic, if you wanted to, but I think it was a bit more practical than that. Somebody’s shop would be bombed and then you’d see a sign that said, ‘open for business’ – because what else are you going to do? That resilience is very inspiring, but it is also extreme pragmatism,” she continued. “There’s a practicality about the way people behaved which is both inspiring and just everyday common sense. It’s easy to sentimentalise it, but I find it really interesting, and the propaganda films at the time were reflecting back a truth, a useful truth for British people to recognise themselves as those who keep their humour in the face of pretty appalling things that were happening to them.” “But you’ve got to be careful because you can get sentimental about the war, because it was awful for most people, a lot of the time. But unlike most other horrible things that happen, it was happening to everybody. Everybody was being bombed, everybody was short of food, everybody was losing people, everybody was anxious. Maybe that collective experience is what people get sentimental about, feeling like you were part of something greater than yourself.”

British Cinema During WW2

The face of British cinema as we recognise it today was shaped, and informed during the 1940s – thanks to propaganda films much like the one our protagonists are crafting in Their Finest.

The glitz and glamour of Hollywood was too far removed from reality, and audiences craved a pertinent reflection of their world, which filtered into the next generation of filmmakers from post-war Ealing to the ‘kitchen sink’ films of the late 50s and early 60s (Look Back in Anger, Cathy Come Home); to today’s filmmakers like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach.

For Stephen Woolley, a life long appreciation of films from this period fueled his passion as a British producer and the knowledge he has acquired was also an invaluable asset to this project.

“The story our film within a film, The Nancy Starling, is telling, of rescuing wounded soldiers in Dunkirk, is heightened, but people at the time could resonate with it,” he said. “.

“There was a social responsibility to tell stories about real but ‘invisible people’ and that’s what is so interesting about the new young filmmakers like Powell and Pressburger, David Lean and Carol Reed at that time. They were making films about ordinary people, because their lives were suddenly exciting and dangerous and full of often tragic consequences, they wanted to see their stories on screen not a complete diet of Hollywood escapism. So female writers like Diana Morgan an inspiration for Lissa Evans character of Catrin began to emerge organically. Originally from Wales Diana was hired by Ealing to write the “nausea” or slop for the female parts in their male dominated movies but very soon with so many movies being made that had a more female angle she was writing much more than just dialogue. As she says she got credit for films she hardly wrote and no credit for some of the movies she completely re wrote, so chaotic was the writing process that films were being written on the set, as events in the war changed daily. ”

“Many of the new films especially the Homefront movies reflected “the peoples war”, gone were the stories about the stiff upper lips of the top brass in the military and their long suffering faithful wives and girlfriends and audiences didn’t crave colourful biopics about important monarchs and historical whitewashing of the great British Empire. Instead they desired and demanded stories about the ordinary folk movies like In Which We Serve, Went The Day Well, The Foreman Went to France, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, The Gentle Sex, Millions Like Us, The Bells Go Down and The Way Forward told the stories of people performing heroically under terrible conditions and often, but not always, triumphing. These films were often inspired or extended from documentaries and short films that the Ministry of Information made as propaganda films. Excellent documentaries like Fires Were Started, London Can Take It, Night Shift and Listen to Britain and short informational films that featured comedians and big stars of the time. The massive West End theatre star Celia Johnson made her movie debut in two of these We Serve and Letter From Home the first a female recruitment film and the later shown exclusively in America a plea for American women to encourage the government join the war. Both directed by Carol Reed ”

“ The new crop of films were shot and made mainly at the studios in and around London where the bombing of unarmed defenceless people was at its most widespread and fatalities were high, and these films reflected the mood of the public, defiance laced with fatalistic humour (although looting was still a problem crime was remarkably low given the lack of policing). Incredibly, people were able to laugh at themselves and the situation with ease. Which was reflected in the films being made, in fact humour is the one recurrent theme that tied all of these films together.”

“Making films during the wartime was extraordinary because as Carol Reed commented at the time when you turned up for work you didn’t know whether or not your actors, your crew, your set or even your studio would be there! And the films had a real purpose, passing information to the beleaguered public, keeping their hopes high and alerting America and the rest of the free world (especially those earlier movies) that Britain was still alive and kicking. As filmmakers we always talk about cinema now as though it’s life and death, every time an actor takes another film, or we lose financing but of course it isn’t, but back then it really was, with almost 30 million people attending the cinema weekly in Britain and the majority of them women the need for those messages to be in movies was something that was imperative.”

Woolley’s passion for cinema at that time shines through within the film, and those who collaborated with the venerable producer admit that his knowledge and enthusiasm is infectious. “Stephen is the biggest film buff you can imagine, he’s hugely inspirational, because he knows all of these films and he’s seen them,” said Lone Scherfig. “It was a real privilege to work with someone of his caliber who understands and appreciates what directors do.”

Gemma Arterton, who plays the leading role of Catrin, also spoke of Woolley’s impressive grasp of this particular era in British history. “Stephen is such a fan of wartime cinema and he has such a passion for that period,” she said. “He also makes films that have interesting roles for women so I usually listen if he tells me to do something. I was really lucky to have both Lone and Stephen chuck loads of stuff at me to watch.”

As for Amanda Posey, she felt that having Woolley’s established knowledge allowed for her to focus more so on the story at hand, forging a prosperous working relationship for the duo. “We never had to worry about making sure Lone, myself, the HODs, had watched every British film made at the time because we knew Stephen had!” she said. “He was basically the archivist I’d turn to, the production designer would turn to and that Lone would turn to and say, ‘is that right?’. Stephen brought a whole load of background information and research and filmic depth of knowledge. It was definitely inspiring but I also think it helped in a way that we weren’t both immersed in the detail of that history; we made a good combination!”

A Celebration of Cinema

One of the overriding aspects to Their Finest, is the deep and pure appreciation of the craft of filmmaking, celebrating the collective experience of not only making a movie, but indulging in one, together. What heightens this notion, is that we’re looking back into a time when cinema meant more than it ever has in Britain.

“It means a lot to us as filmmakers to make a film about a period where films were as important as they were,” Lone Scherfig claimed. “To remind us why we spend all our adult life doing this instead of something worthier, like being a nurse, where you might respect yourself more. We have to remind ourselves that we have a right to do this job, even if there are days where you laugh for sixteen hours.”

“We also wanted to celebrate how wonderful it can be to sit in a cinema and watch films with an audience, she continued. “The world of filmmaking is one I really love and know, and as a tribute to cinema the film was a great technical challenge. But the underlying drama, how much the characters have at stake means a lot for the depth of the film. Behind the screwball dialogue they know that the film they are making plays a part in winning the war and that every work day can be their last.

Amanda Posey also remains hopeful that this film can inspire audiences, and serve as a reminder of how special the cinema experience can be.

“It’s a celebration of how much cinema can mean, and what it can do. It doesn’t have to be a hard-hitting documentary to change people and make a difference in their lives, and these films, sometimes they were escapism and sometimes they were getting an important propaganda point across, but it really encapsulates a time where cinema really mattered, and it reminds you that it can always do that, at different times and in different ways.”

Stephen Woolley also felt similarly about the project, wanting to cast a light over an era where film mattered so tremendously.

“As a person inspired by cinema I jumped at opportunity to make a movie about filmmaking when it was incredibly important. That period was undoubtedly on reflection, a golden age of British cinema, and the filmmakers who stayed in Britain and made films during the war went on to be probably the greatest filmmakers we’ve ever produced. To name just three teams ( and their were many more ) David Lean and Noel Cowerd made Brief Encounter whilst the war was ending, Powell and Pressburger made A Matter of Life and Death the last MOI inspired film during those final days and then of course Carol Reed and Korda whose The Third Man made after the war was inspired not just by the post war situation in Vienna but the style of the films that were forged in Britain ( authentically reflecting the world ) during this time. Cinema has never been and will never be more relevant than it was then. ”

“They were making films at a time when watching or attending the cinema also tangibly meant something much more significant than it does now. Cinemas had an incredible hypnotic effect, it meant so much to people because they were deprived of information which they acquired from the up to date newsreels and documentaries ( radio and newspapers couldn’t show them anything!) and they really held on to the ritual of going to the pictures as a way of meeting friends and family , gossiping and catching up, and that warmth and comradeship was important in people’s lives. The power of movies in that atmosphere was far greater than we could imagine now. Their Finest we hope is a film you also have to experience at the cinema, we worked very hard to make our movie in a small way reflect that time.”

Gaby Chiappe was a key part in ensuring that be the case, and the screenwriter wanted this endeavour to truly commemorate the shared, communal experience of watching a film at the pictures. “Cinemas were closed briefly at the beginning of the war as there was a fear they’d be dangerous, but they opened them again because people wanted to go,” she said.

“I think there’s something really different, and special, when watching a film with other people, rather than at home. There are fewer and fewer ways in which we do things together, our tendency is to do things in isolation and there’s a hankering for doing things collectively, with other people.”

Gemma Arterton was in agreement. “It’s great that we have so much access now to everything, but there’s something so brilliant about seeing a film in a group and laughing together, there’s nothing really that beats it. It’s like going to the theatre, what makes it so special is that you’re there with other people and you’re experiencing it with them at the same time. It’s escapism, it takes you away for an hour and a half, from whatever crap is going on in your life. It’s so important, and as technology gets more advanced, I still hope people will always go to the cinema.”