Their Finest

This fictional account of British filmmakers making a propaganda drama during the early days of World War II takes an intriguing premise and bogs it down with clichés. But your mom will love it.

Gemma Arterton stars as Catrin, a Welsh writer conscripted into the Ministry of Information's film division in order to add a "woman's touch" to their new project. Her task: to adapt the news story of twin English sisters who stole their father's boat to rescue soldiers at Dunkirk. When Catrin learns that the truth is less inspiring than the headline, she and her cowriters Tom and Raymond (Sam Claflin and Paul Ritter) struggle to maintain their story's integrity while finding a way to boost their shellshocked audience's morale.

So far, so good. But gradually it becomes apparent that Catrin and Tom are secretly in love with each other, which complicates matters as Catrin's got an artist hubby (the ever-mustached Jack Huston) waiting for her back home. And I, for one, was disappointed to watch a canny dramatization of historical events devolve into a predictable sudser.

Scherfig's direction is a mixed bag: as with An Education, she shows a rigorous devotion to period authenticity – her 1940s characters smoke like chimneys – and she sprinkles her film with lovely moments. Yet she also bungles the staging of a couple key violent scenes, and does little to enliven the banal twists in Gaby Chiappe's screenplay (based on Lissa Evans's more cleverly titled novel Their Finest Hour and a Half).

The cast is blameless: Arterton is appropriately plucky, British hunk du jour Claflin is believably writer-ish, and Bill Nighy, as a pompous actor, unsurprisingly steals the show. Claudia Jessie and Stephanie Hyam, playing the twins in the movie-within-the-movie, are especially adorable, though they're mostly relegated to the background.

Their Finest strives to be a crowdpleaser, and judging by the plethora of nodding silver-haired heads I saw in the audience, it delivers. One might even argue that the story's clichés, which include a surprise death of a major character, are sort of meta, as actual WWII propaganda movies like Mrs. Miniver often pulled the same cheap stunts. But I'm not convinced that Their Finest is that self-aware.