I’m one of those people: the kind who likes to read the book before watching the movie, if possible. So as soon as Lissa Evans’ (Crooked Heart, Old Baggage) comedic and tender novel Their Finest was reprinted, I was on it, devouring its pages in anticipation of the then-upcoming movie (spectacularly reviewed by the incomparable Alana Bruce here). I found the book and movie to complement each other perfectly, while still being able to stand on their own.
Their Finest tells the story of an ordinary group of people who band together to tell an extraordinary story. Their mandate is to create a propaganda movie about Dunkirk that will inspire both UK and US audiences. It sounds simple enough, except that they’re required to do so during the Blitz! That means they run on almost no sleep, a limited budget, and a short staff that’s less than ideal (all the ideals have been called up or killed). Basically, the movie has all the odds stacked against it, and yet, like all movies, it has a deadline.
At first, I recognized the characters in this motley crew: the has-been actor, the hopeful and eager-to-please new girl, the career woman, the awkward guy that just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But as the story was woven through their different perspectives, their own stories were fleshed out until I felt like I knew them. I grew fond of Ambrose the actor, ego and all. I identified with Catrin’s idealism and gumption as she fought for her chance as a writer in a cutthroat industry. I wanted to have a cuppa with Edith the costumer and have her reorganize my room (she’s a bit of a neat freak, as am I). I longed to tell Arthur that the crew was lucky to have him around, even if he wasn’t exactly the right man to be their military advisor. These were flawed characters. Real characters. The underdogs who were only given a chance because of desperate measures forced by the war. I couldn’t help but get attached to them.
Having had the privilege of growing up on movie and theatre sets, I recognized these people. My dad is a lighting designer and he never hesitated to explain the intricacies of his work to my curious mind as I followed him and his colleagues around, trying to understand the magic of bringing stories to life.
And get this: Catrin’s character is loosely inspired by real-life pioneering screenwriter Diana Morgan, who boldly strode into the writers’ room and held her own with the boys when it was anything but popular. She and several others in her time never received screen credit, but their legacy lives on. And what a legacy it is.
Evans was able to add her own extensive, personal knowledge of filmmaking into the story to make it come to life. Having spent years as a producer, director, and script-editor, she knows a thing or two about what goes on behind the scenes. Beyond the clever structure and fast pace of her novel, the massive amount of research that she put into her work is evident on every page, bringing the story to life with all of the sights, sounds, smells and downright exhaustion of 1940s London. I really got a feel for what these everymen (and everywomen) were up against and gained all the more respect for them as a result. Heck, I’m grumpy and ineffective if I’ve had one bad night’s sleep, but fifty-seven in a row? #nope
I’ll be honest, I cried after finishing this one. These characters inspired me. They’d made me laugh and cry. I’d seen them grow. I’ve never been more sorry not to see a sequel, but I understand why the story stops there. It’s simply enough on its own. And the movie, though necessarily streamlined, does do it justice. It doesn’t tell the exact same story, but that means that I can enjoy each piece on its own. And I do, repeatedly. It’s just that good.