Their Finest Is Really Frustrating — & That's A Good Thing

Photo: Nicola Dove.
My friends often make fun of me for being a huge history nerd. I'm that person who gets irrationally upset in movies when they play a song released one year after the action is supposed to take place (I'm looking at you Pirate Radio!), or when liberties are taken for narrative consistency (*cough* The Other Boleyn Girl). But the great thing about history is that it tends to shine a light on how much (or how little) has changed.
Such is the case with Their Finest, the film starring Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin (aka Finnick Odair from Hunger Games, sporting a very amusing mustache), which takes place during the London Blitz circa 1941. Catrin Cole (Arterton) is a copywriter at a small advertising firm, where she works on making products appeal to women. Her husband, artist Ellis Cole (a sneakily sexy Jack Huston) is struggling to make rent because no one will buy his gloomy industrial art. When she gets a call from the Ministry of Information to interview for a job, she assumes it's a secretarial post — but lo and behold, someone wants her to work as a writer in the propaganda film department! In the thick of World War II, the government needs to produce films to boost the public's moral. The momentary high is quickly tempered, though, when we realize that she's brought aboard to write what fellow writer Tom Buckley (Claflin) calls "the slops" — otherwise known as women's dialogue.
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It's infuriating. It's outrageous. Good thing this is all safely buried in the 1940s, right? Except, oh right, it's not.
According to the Center for Study of Women in TV and Film, out of the 100 top grossing films of 2016, women accounted for 4% of directors, 11% of writers, 19% of producers, and 3% of cinematographers. For women of color, those numbers are even lower.
Content-wise, women made up 29% of leading protagonists, and 32% of overall speaking characters. When you consider that women make up 50.8% of the population of the United States, and 49.55% of the total world population, these numbers seem appallingly low.
Directed by Lone Scherfig, known for 2009's An Education, Their Finest flies in the face of these statistics. It's a film directed by a woman, about a woman, who ultimately prioritizes her work over her love life. (The aforementioned study also showed that 46% of women characters were more likely to focus on their personal lives over work, compared to 25% of men.)
But the film also underlines these issues in a creative and urgent way. Reflected back at us is a version of what women in Hollywood experience today, albeit with less victory rolls. We've come a long way — but how much of that is the illusion of progress? In the film, Catrin's character is told that of course, she can't be paid as much as a man for the same job. It's assumed, and shamelessly dropped into a conversation. In 2015, the Institute for Women's Policy Research determined that women still make roughly 80 cents for ever dollar earned by a man. No one would openly call women's dialogue "the slops" today. Instead, we get vague statements about how women-driven films can't make it at the box office, despite repeated proof to the contrary, or qualifiers like "guilty pleasure," meant to make us feel okay about consuming entertainment by and for women. (It took Big Little Lies, led by an A-list cast of Strong Female Protagonists, nearly the entire series to free itself from that label.)
Their Finest is poignant, well-acted, and at times, pretty fun to watch. Gemma Arterton is charming, and takes no bullshit as Catrin. Sam Claflin is kind of swoon-worthy in a gruff antagonizing sort of way, and Bill Nighy very nearly steals the show as the kind of B-list actor who can't deal with the fact that he's 60 and no longer a leading man. But the film, which features a film within a film starring two female heroines of its own, winds up feeling less like a historical drama and more like a distorted mirror of our own reality. Hitler may not be dropping bombs, but Hollywood sexism is alive and well.
It’s 2017, and yet women are still fighting for equality. Data suggests it will take until 2152 to close the gender wage gap, but it shouldn’t take a century to get what we want. We want more, and Refinery29 is here to help — because 135 years is too long to wait for what we deserve today.
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