Their Finest (12A)

★★★

KEEP calm and carry on with the latest likeable jaunt from writer-director Lone Scherfig (An Education, One Day). It takes us back to WWII-era England, a country bombarded with air raids, restricted by rations and people living in fear that their loved ones sent off to fight might never come back.

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That’s where the British Ministry of Information comes in, a morale-building government body responsible for creating propaganda films that will enrich and enlighten an audience who increasingly escape into a dark room and look up at the big-screen as a means to forget the horrors of what’s happening outside.

Realising he needs a woman’s touch on the latest project, eccentric boss Roger Swain (Richard E Grant) hires Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) to bring the wit and charm of everyday chat between women – someone to write the “slop” as temperamental and cynical lead screenwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin, who starred in Scherfig’s The Riot Club) crudely describes it. At first, Catrin thinks she’s applying for a secretarial position but soon finds herself thrust into a writers’ room and eventually on location where they’ll film their unashamedly optimistic film about twin sisters who took their father’s boat to France and returned with rescued soldiers. Who cares if it’s not quite true? That’s the movies; so what’s the harm if it brings joy to an audience that badly needs it?

“Authenticity informed by optimism” is the brief bestowed down from on high. “A contradiction in terms, if you ask me,” retorts Buckley, consistently conveying an icy exterior at which Catrin tries to chip away. And it’s an incongruity that Their Finest never completely balances, being far more effective as a cheerful, rainy afternoon crowd-pleaser than any sort of gritty portrayal of wartime struggle.

It’s strongest when it focuses on the relationship between the characters, who are all immense fun to be around, particularly Arterton who brings a likeability to this strong-willed Welsh girl learning the ropes of what it takes to navigate and stand your ground in a largely male-driven filmmaking world.

Bill Nighy is, as ever, an utter joy as narcissistic veteran actor Ambrose Hilliard, who considers his given role of drunk “Uncle Frank” beneath the station of his Laurence Olivier-esque thespian skills.

There’s huge amounts of knowing to be had in the faux wartime film itself as Scherfig really gets the tone for which these inspiring propaganda pieces were aiming. It shrewdly recreates an old world style of film which accentuated theatricality completely accepted at the time but that seems oh so quaint, overly formal and even artificial now. Fans of 1940s British cinema in particular will find much to recognise and enjoy here.

It may not set the world alight but this is the kind of genial, comforting big-screen viewing that’s welcomed every once in a while. An engaging blend of comic wittiness, budding romance and style of British cinema long since relegated to the past, with warmth and heart to spare.