Slop

Feeling like a grumpy old man. So, I had to show students the 2016 British movie THEIR FINEST as part of someone else’s class. I did not like this movie.

It’s about women — but actually, one woman, played by Gemma Arterton — working in the Brit film industry in WWII. The premise is that the war opens up opportunities for women in cinema. I’m not sure that premise is true — who are these women whose careers were helped, and does a comparison of figures of female crew pre-war and during-war bear out this premise? My impression is that there were always women and they were always the exception in any job except actress…

Still, I think you could make a decent film about that even without a solid underpinning of documentary fact. Certainly the general point that a lot of previously restricted jobs were opened up to women during the war has a very solid basis, and transposing that into filmmaking, or wizardry, or taxidermy would be a legitimate fictional conceit.

But, from its truncated title on down, this isn’t the right film. It’s based on Their Finest Hour and a Half, a novel by former TV producer/director Lissa Evans, which has a title that actually works and means something. Evidently somebody thought it was too long, so we’re left hanging. Their finest WHAT? There’s a rule, or anyway almost a rule, that if you throw out a good title for a bad reason, you’re going to end up with a really terrible title. And since nobody in film development ever UNDOES a decision, you’ll never get the moment of clarity where someone holds up the two titles side by side and says, “Waitaminute…”

This FEELS like a script that’s been “in development” — the book came out in 2009. Screenwriter Gaby Chiappe hasn’t found, or been allowed to find, a strong throughline of the cinematic kind. Since the film is mainly about a screenwriter, there’s a horrible irony that we can’t answer the questions “What does the heroine want?” or “Why isn’t the film over?” I was forced to ask the second question about three times, as it kept trundling on.

It looks very nice, though its vision of a 1940s film crew — about six people and a tiny Technicolor camera — what happened to the “magic cottage”? — where’s the sound crew and equipment? — no continuity girl? — is pathetically unconvincing. And director Lone Scherfig never seems to move her own camera. Maybe she should have used the little blue Dinky toy from the film.

There’s a very good glass painting gag. I have to give them that. I was trying to explain glass paintings to an actor friend recently and this film did a far better job in five seconds of imagery than I could manage in a minute or so of babbling.

Jake Lacey is very funny as the token American, a pilot drafted in as actor, who can’t act, doesn’t even know what acting IS. When the movie and the actors know what joke they’re supposed to be telling, they can do it quite well. But confusion has set in on the macro level and it seeps down.

Gemma Arterton, who we KNOW is really good, is wasted as a smiley cipher. The scenes with Bill Nighy and Helen McCrory don’t really need to be there at all, but they bring the entertainment, with one character trait apiece. One-dimensional characters are fine, in their place.

“Slop” is the male filmmakers’ word for the kind of emotional stuff you need a woman to write. Weirdly, that’s the weakest component here. It’s a NICE — sloppy, sappy — film, without emotional fire. In telling the story of a Welsh woman screenwriter, they must have encountered, surely, the story of Diana Morgan, the actual Welsh woman screenwriter in WWII. I suppose her story was probably the inspiration. Morgan was known to the blokes at Ealing as “the Welsh bitch.” And that was at EALING — sweet, cosy Ealing. There’s no sense in this film of how obnoxious men could really be, pre-liberation. You get a slightly handsy Jeremy Irons for one scene (he’s good value) and a sarcastic Sam Claflin (I think I will call him Sarcastic Sam Claflin from now on). Nobody has the courage to actually be shocking. There are no actual bastards (in a film about moviemaking??!)

Somebody at the top doesn’t know what a story is, or what a scene is, and they haven’t done their research. And the edit seems concerned mainly with overdubbing lines so we’ll understand, rather than care or believe.

“Have you ever met Robert Donat?” Cut to back view. Overdub: “The famous actor?”

More offensive than that is the film’s patronising attitude to the films of the period. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP is so much more sophisticated as film art than THEIR FINEST, there’s just no comparison. But this movie looks smugly back at what it perceives to be naivety and cookie-cutter storytelling. It’s as if a daytime soap paused to congratulate itself on being better-written than King Lear. Hell, the real Diana Morgan contributed to WENT THE DAY WELL?, a genuinely horrifying film about the effects of war on ordinary British people.

Not anybody’s finest 117 minutes.

THEIR FINEST stars Tamara Drew; Finnick Odair; Withnail; Karl Marx; Jack Kerouac; Duchess of Sutherland; Minister Rufus Scrimgeour; Paul Wolfowitz; Narcissa Malfoy; Beverley & Elliot Mantle; Richard Semco; Brynden ‘Blackfish’ Tully; and Ethel Huggett (archive footage).

6 Responses to “Slop”

  1. ooh can I disagree? I thought it did well to have a pretty bleak ending. And yes Imperial War Museum archive is choca with films made by women for propaganda purposes who did not go on to have a career after the war. They were just chucked aside. One Ruby Grierson was actually killed making a film about evacuees she went down with a ship. It would have been interesting to see if the Mother of the modern documentary would have been allowed to make a film after the war but I doubt it. BECTU in the late 1970’s ALLOWED 2 women to direct. One of them was a tutor I met at a NFTS course I did in the early eighties.

  2. ROGER ALLEN Says:

    “There’s no sense in this film of how obnoxious men could really be, pre-liberation.”
    Perhaps the only way women could get jobs then – other than through the casting couch – was by being obnoxious.

  3. There’s one supporting female character who’s a bit spikey and a lesbian, but not obnoxious. She’s REGARDED as obnoxious by the men, and as a studio spy — something we never really learn the truth of.

    The bleak ending isn’t really bleak… but it’s progressive that they finally don’t place their lead in a relationship where she’s subservient to a man. But then, they imply that she’d be happier if she were, it’s only an ahistorical studio bombing that prevents her switching from one domineering bloke to another and staying with him.

    Documentary is one thing… and maybe a better subject for a movie about the war. But as for screenwriters… there were a few women in the thirties, a few women in the forties… it remained a minority occupation, no doubt circumscribed by chauvinism, but I don’t know that the war made any difference to it.

    The film’s heroine falls into the job wins the respect of the misogynists, but there’s no vision laid out for her overall goal. She wants to protect the importance of her female characters in the script, which is good, but that’s in play for maybe three bits of scenes. And it’s all undercut by the film they’re making being such utter rot.

  4. Addendum: many of the women who succeeded in film were far from obnoxious, so far as I can see. Ida Lupino became a director not because she stomped all opposition, but because she had ideas, drive, and won over people who could help her by being really nice.

    In Britain, I’ve never heard a bad word about Wendy Toye or Betty Box as people. And I don’t think Diana Morgan’s nickname was particularly justified by her character, it feels more like the casual meanness of a boys’ club…

  5. ROGER ALLEN Says:

    When I said “obnoxious” I was referring to the casual meanness of a boys’ club, rather than the women’s actual qualities: I’ve got a horrible feeling that having ideas and drive would get women labelled obnoxious, regardless of their niceness or their ability – especially because of their ability, perhaps. Spoiling the atmosphere of the boys’ club wouldn’t help. I think the relationship of William and the Outlaws and Violet Elizabeth Bott probably reflected the attitude of many men to women and the only effective response available to the women.

  6. Yes, that seems at least somewhat true.

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