Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. The spectre of the “well-made British film” – well-cast, well-acted and well-dressed, yet so emotionally hemmed in as to pack all the wallop of a damp handkerchief – hangs heavy over Their Finest (***, 12A, 115 mins), Lone Scherfig’s take on Lissa Evans’ WW2-set bestseller. It’s certainly well-cast and well-produced, lining up its national treasures like mantelpiece tchotchkes. There’s a self-reflexive curl about its stiff upper lip, however: Gaby Chiappe’s script maps the progress of screenwriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) within the wartime propaganda industry.
21st century career women will recognise elements of Catrin’s predicament: territorial male colleagues, limited pay, a wider institutional sexism that dubs women’s dialogue “the slop”. Why, then, is Their Finest but mildly stirring? Partly, it’s the drab grey fug Scherfig shrouds scenes in, constantly obscuring her more colourful features: amusingly vain lead Bill Nighy’s double-act with schnauzer-toting agent Eddie Marsan, Rachael Sterling’s no-nonsense producer. Partly, it’s self-satisfaction: each wry snipe at thespian ways removes us only further from anything like real pain or sacrifice.
Their Finest instead emerges from that keep-calm-and-carry-on mentality determined to recast WW2 as a jolly, best-of-British romp: it’s fish-and-chips in newspaper wrappers, pretty girls on bicycles, and a pantomimic rendering of Dunkirk spirit via a caricatured crew (plucky heroine, square-jawed Yank) forming their own cosy platoon. At the outset, Henry Goodman’s Korda-like bigwig lists a successful picture’s key ingredients as “authenticity, optimism, and a dog”. Scherfig’s film can claim two of these three, enough to provide genteel matinee distraction – but it’s barely more sophisticated in appealing to a modern audience.
Hollywood, meanwhile, is harking back to that late Fifties golden age when rich white men might still present as romantic mavericks. Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply (**, 12A, 127 mins), American cinema’s biggest financial flop of 2016, deploys a juicy Howard Hughes quote (“Never check an interesting fact”) to justify its entirely fictional love triangle between ageing satyr Hughes (Beatty himself), a self-improving starlet (Lily Collins), and her designated driver (Alden Ehrenreich), played out as a Kodachromed cruise down a Sunset Strip converted for the occasion into an erratic memory lane.
Familiar faces (Ed Harris, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin) prove subservient to the dominant creative force: Beatty-as-Hughes emerges from the shadows after a half-hour, and begins pawing Collins in a manner that might well put you off the movies forever. Poignant flickers arise in its trade-off between innocence and experience, and its nostalgia feels more sincere for emanating from someone who actually lived through the mythmaking. Yet as Rules rambles on, it becomes clear it’s been funnelled into a pretty fitful vehicle: a misfire caught between lavishly expensive folly – a silver-screen Spruce Goose – and the year’s best-appointed dad joke.
Their Finest and Rules Don't Apply open in cinemas nationwide today.