Their Finest: female empowerment and propaganda filmmaking

21 Apr 2017 BY Elinor Walpole in Film Features

7 mins
Their Finest
Their Finest

Their Finest, a new British World War II drama, gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse of propaganda filmmaking during the war, and is told from the point of view of spirited Catrin. An artist's wife looking to support her husband's unpredictable income by taking on secretarial work, Catrin applies for a position at the Ministry of Information, but is mistaken for a scriptwriter, and set to work straight away with coming up with "the slop" - women's dialogue for wartime propaganda films.

As propaganda films were becoming a key tool in keeping the British public on board with the war effort, scriptwriters were under increasing pressure to ensure that the messages they conveyed were taken seriously. Recreating how ordinary women spoke proved to be problematic at first, with audiences booing the flimsy dialogue - a serious problem when women were needed to take on vital roles within the home front. As a response, female writers were taken on to ensure that the women's words on screen were convincing, and that the messages going out would find their mark.

Inspired by wartime documentaries that reveal courage under fire - London Can Take It, Night Shift, Fires Were Started - and the Imperial War Museum's Women and Children at War 'informational' compilation, Their Finest makes use of genuine archive footage as well as specially created faux-propaganda reels. During the period, these newsreels and 'informationals' were used to update people who went to the cinema on the war's progress. Audiences would be reminded to do their bit before they settled in for the main feature, which was often a WWII drama like In Which We Serve or A Canterbury Tale; films which reinforced the message about the importance of the sacrifices being made. In Britain, more than 30 million people a week would attend the cinema in order to enjoy the comfort of a collective experience during troubled times, and despite a brief period of closure at the beginning of the war, they were quickly reopened due to public demand.  

Based on the book Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, the film acknowledges that while the propaganda filmmakers may not have been on the front line themselves, their wartime efforts were invaluable in keeping up spirits at home. The influence of their films also played a key part in influencing America to lend their forces to the war effort, as reflected in films such as Casablanca and Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain. Novelist Evans' material is translated to the screen here by director Lone Scherfig (The Riot ClubAn Education), with a script written by Gaby Chiappe and produced by Amanda Posey, meaning that for a film about female empowerment, Their Finest displays a strong female contingent behind the scenes, and boasts fitting F-Rating credentials. You can explore women in film and the F-Rating in more depth with our International Women's Day resource, and check out the interviews below to hear Scherfig herself expand on her approach to adapting the text and capturing the concerns of the time.

Catrin is played by Gemma Arterton, who explains to our young reporter below that despite the horrors of the wartime experience, the fact that the men were away at the front did open up new opportunities for the women left behind, who were able to rise to the occasion, and discover new capabilities. Catrin is quickly promoted from writing for informationals to working on a propaganda feature, and uses her newfound platform to ensure that other hardworking women are also getting the recognition they deserve. Resisting pressure from more conservative colleagues, Catrin ensures that the female characters in her film have important parts to play and serve as an inspiration to - and an accurate reflection of - the women watching. Similarly elevated beyond the kind of roles normally available to men of his age, Ambrose Hilliard, the elderly star of the film-within-a-film, played by Bill Nighy, shores Catrin up when her confidence takes a blow. He reminds Catrin that the opportunities they've received have come at a tragic cost, and that they shouldn't be squandered.

The character of Catrin was inspired by Diana Morgan, a scriptwriter who was taken on by Ealing studios and whose writing is behind much of their output during the 1940s and 50s, including the WWII propaganda film Went the Day Well. Morgan was prolific, but the writing credits she received vary greatly due to the haphazard process of filmmaking during wartime. The chaos of attempting to make a film during the Blitz is also a theme for Their Finest, revealing poignantly that no member of the team - or indeed the sets or locations - would necessarily still be there the next day. While Lone Scherfig treats the material with a light touch overall, moments of shock are allowed to sink in before the characters pick themselves up to ensure the show goes on, in much the same way that people living through the Blitz were forced to do under those conditions.

Having endured these conditions, the British public demanded a new form of cinema in the post-war period. Far from reacting against the propaganda films they'd seen, instead they found that the elevation of everyday life to the big screen that those films featured was something they wished to see more of. This new demand for films that recognised the importance of ordinary people saw directors who had cut their teeth creating wartime documentaries come to the fore, such as Carol Reed, David Lean, and Powell and Pressburger. While a lot of women returned to their former positions in peacetime, many within the film industry kept on behind the scenes, ensuring that their perspectives contributed to the new era of social realism.

Director Lone Scherfig talks Their Finest

Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin on Their Finest

Sam Claflin talks filmmaking

Discover more in our podcast.

Hear more from the Curation Team in our Into Film Recommends Podcast Series. Also available on itunes.

Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer

Elinor Walpole , Film Programmer

Elinor has a BA in English Literature from the University of Warwick. She has worked as Education and Community Officer for Picturehouse Cinemas, and as Outreach Coordinator for Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

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