Writing Her Way to Freedom

It’s been a turbulent year for women and it’s only February. The #metoo movement continues to challenge the patriarchy, even as the momentum is questioned at every turn.

Aiming to be supportive and offer my contribution in healthy ways, I’m also looking for stories to bolster me beyond the memes of social media and the outrage inducing headlines that come at a dizzying pace. Whether it’s Uma Thurman speaking her truth in the New York Times, or Oprah’s rousing speech at the Golden Globes, voices are rising. When an entire movement is selected as Time’s Person of the Year, something is shifting.

Amid all this, I felt a deep sense of relief and recognition watching Their Finest, from Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (An Education, Italian for Beginners). There’s something bolstering about a woman with agency, intelligence and emotional complexity driving the narrative of a film. It’s been said so many times before, but there truly needs to be more stories like this on screens of all sizes.

Part comedy/philosophical treatise/romance the story is set during the Blitz in 1940’s London and the protagonist Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) brings a radiance and defiance to the role that feels familiar and comforting. After being discovered for her comic strip skills, she lands a job writing “slop” or female characters for propaganda films. But it’s her resilience and creativity that elevate her to professional peer in short order and it’s satisfying to watch as she solves plot problems and writes compelling and funny dialogue while Tom Buckley (Sam Clafin) struggles in his ego swamp.

As she prepares to leave her energy and money sucking husband, he bemoans having painted her walking away when she first posed for him as an impressionable young woman. She fires back “You shouldn’t have painted me so small.” Perfect.

The dialogue overall is filled with wisdom and tender truths. Even as the characters work to say what they mean instead of reacting in fear. The power of cinema is in those moments of exquisite vulnerability and connection and Scherfig has masterfully brought the story, based on the 2009 book Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans to the screen.

As an added bonus, there’s the ever delightful Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard, an aging actor capitalizing on work opportunities as younger men have been called to duty. At first glance, he’s a pompous actor with little substance, but he redeems himself with nuance and skill with some of the most memorable lines in the film. He’s a truly enjoyable actor to watch.

Speaking of male characters, as a romantic interest Tom Buckley is flawed but decent. Confused but ethical and sharp witted. It’s easy to see how an attraction would develop. Under Scherfig’s compassionate direction, the men of the film aren’t bullies or rapists and in our current world, where predators are being exposed daily it is comforting to take refuge in a film with such a refined narrative.

Their Finest is an emotionally satisfying film, complete with laughter, learning, and weeping. All the hallmarks of a classic.

Here in Vancouver, the Vancouver Women in Film Festival is happening March 6-11 and I’ll be at Vancity Theatre with a bag of popcorn and side of hope, taking in women’s stories on the big screen. Maybe I’ll see you there.

 

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