Their Finest (not to be confused with Their Finest Hours, even though this is based on a book called Their Finest Hour and a Half) is a disarmingly sweet and poignant true story that resonates with empowerment and the power of creativity. Set at the start of WWII, the British film industry is trying to make ends meet as well as provide morale boosts to the public. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, her best performance yet) goes in for a copywriting job and walks out a hired screenwriter, pegged to write the “women’s parts.” Thanks to the depleted workforce, Catrin has an opportunity she never would have otherwise and she blossoms under the crucible of creative collaboration. This was one aspect of the movie that I was very taken with, as a writer and screenwriter myself, the natural progression of creativity, solving a problem, finding a solution, and the elation that follows. The complications keep coming, first from the British film office who need the movie to be inspirational, then from the divergences from the true story of a pair of French girls who stole their uncle’s boat to rescue soldiers at Dunkirk, then from working with American producers who insist on an American hero who can’t act, and then from natural calamities of scheduling, casting, and oh yeah, the bombing and blitzes that could obliterate everyone. The movie is alive with conflict and feeling and the sweet story of a woman finding her sense of empowerment in the arts. The movie-within-the-movie is filmed to period appropriate techniques, and Bill Nighy is effortlessly amusing as an aging actor still fighting for some scrap of respect in an industry ready to forget him. The insights into the different stages of film production were fun and illuminating. I appreciated that the war isn’t just something in the background but a constant. It upsets the order, takes lives, and is a striking reminder why these people are doing what they’re doing. The film also rhapsodizes the power of the arts, and in particular cinema, in a way that feels reverent without being overly sentimental or self-congratulatory. A great collection of characters is assembled as a ramshackle sort of family with a mission, and the movie drives right into one payoff after another, lifting your spirits and warming your heart. There is a sudden plot turn that will likely disappoint many in the audience eager for a simple happy ending, but I almost view it as industry satire on the difference between American and European cinema tastes. Their Finest is a small gem with sympathetic characters trying their finest and achieving something great. It’s a rich story that deserves its moment in the spotlight and I’d advise seeking it out if possible.
Nate’s Grade: B+
In 1961 Britain, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old schoolgirl plowing away at her education. She?s on track to enroll at Oxford “reading English” and her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour) have overscheduled the girl with hobbies and clubs to help build her academic portfolio. Then one rainy night she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a thirty something man who offers to give her and her cello a ride. This enchanting man keeps coming back around to see Jenny, sweeping her off her feet. He invites her to go to concert recitals with his older friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), trips to the country, and even a fabulous getaway to Paris. “You have no idea how boring my life was before you,” she confesses to David. But David is coy about how he can pay for such extravagances. Jenny’s grades begin to suffer and it looks like she may miss out on being able to enroll at Oxford. She has to make a decision whether to continue seeing David or going back to her primary school education.
An Education is a handsomely recreated period drama that manages to be very funny, very engaging, and very well acted. It’s also rather insightful and does an exquisite job of conveying that strange wonderful heartsick of love, maybe better than any movie since My Summer of Love. You can practically just drink in all of Jenny’s excitement. Jenny isn’t a silly girl prone to naivety. She’s a smart and clever girl, and not just because other characters say so or we see her stellar test grades destined for prime placement on the fridge. You witness her intelligence in how she interacts through different social circles. Since the movie is entirely Jenny?s story, we need to be convinced that she’s smart in order to believe her willingness to be duped. She has reservations about David’s habits but doesn’t want to risk going back to a dull life of books and family dinners. She has to be a smart, vibrant girl anxious to keep a good thing going, willing to ignore certain warning signs that otherwise might cause her pause. Even Jenny’s parents get caught up in the seduction, swooning over David and his upper class connections and comforts.
The teen-girl-with-older-male aspect might make us squirm, but in the realm of 1961 Britain, it’s acceptable. Jenny and David don?t need to hide their affair in dank hotel rooms and avoid any suspicious eyes. We don’t get any agonizing inner turmoil over dating a teenage girl, mostly because it’s from Jenny’s perspective and that everybody else seems okay with it all. This acceptance means that the drama for An Education can focus on something less seamy. That doesn’t mean that everybody approves. While Jenny’s friends think she hit the jackpot, and hang from her every word about her amazing sophisticated boyfriend, her literature teacher (Olivia Williams) sees through David?s whirlwind of charms. This isn’t the tale of some girl being drawn into the dark side, turning into an unsavory, rebellious teenager flouting the law and good manners. Jenny is not that kind of gal.
Mulligan is fantastic and delivers such a sumptuous performance that you feel like a human being is coming alive before your eyes. She lights up with the dawning realization that a charming and worldly man is courting her, and you feel every moments of her swirling delight and awe. Mulligan even goes so far as to get even the small details right, like the way Jenny opens her eyes to peak during a kiss to make sure it’s all not just some passing dream, or the way she has to look away at times and break eye-contact because she’s just so happy, with those twinkling eyes and a mouth curling like a cherry stem. She’s bashfully coquettish in her physical attraction to David, though in my praise it also sounds like I, too, have fallen for the girl. Much ink has been spilled declaring Mulligan as a rising Audrey Hepburn figure, mostly because she sports that famous short bob of a haircut that many girls had in 1961. To me, Mulligan gives a stronger impression as being the luminescent little sister to Emily Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing, Match Point). Mulligan is a fresh young actress that delivers a performance of stirring vulnerability. It’s a breakout performance that will likely mean that Hollywood will come calling when they need the worrisome girlfriend role for the next factory-produced mass-market entertainment (she’s finished filming the Wall Street sequel, so perhaps we’re already there).
Adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy) from a memoir by Lynn Barber, An Education follows the coming-of-age track well with enough swipes at class-consciousness. But man, I was really surprised how funny this movie is. An Education is routinely crackling with a fine comic wit, and Jenny and her father have the best repartee. Molina is an unsung actor and he dutifully carries out the role of “uptight neurotic father” with more than a stiff upper lip; the man puts his all in the role. While he can come across as hysterical at times, Molina is paternal with a capital P. It’s refreshing just to listen to smart people banter at an intelligent level.
The movie’s theme ponders the significance of education. There’s the broader view of education, learning throughout one’s life from new and enriching experiences. She gets to learn a bit more of the way of the world, and Jenny feels that she can learn more and have fun with David than sitting through lectures and slogging through homework. She values what David has to teach her above what she can find in a textbook. Jenny’s father stresses the virtues of learning and thinking but once Jenny has a chance to marry an upper class, cultured male then education no longer matters. She is now set for life through David. All that learning to become a dutiful housewife in a lovely, gilded cage. Is that the real desired end to personal growth: to snag a husband? The school’s headmistress (Emma Thompson in practically a cameo) doesn’t serve as a great ambassador to higher learning: she stresses the lonely hardships, internal dedication, and she herself is openly anti-Semitic, proving that an intelligent mind is not the same as being open-minded. To her, Jenny is jeopardizing her lone chance at a respectable life.
Jenny rejects the traditional route of education and chooses to pursue a life with David, that is, until the third act complications beckon. Jenny finds out about David’s secret rather too easily, I’m afraid (secret letters should never be hidden the glove compartment). While the end revelations are somewhat expected, what is unexpected is that every character pretty much escapes consequences by the end of the film. No one is really held accountable for his or her decisions. Pretty much everyone is exactly where he or she left off just with a tad more street smarts. It’s the equivalent of learning not to trust every person after getting ripped off.
Despite all the hesitation, and the age difference, An Education is an actual romantic movie. It’s a coming-of-age charmer with all the preen and gloss of an awards caliber film. You feel the delight in the sheer possibility of life for Jenny. The story unfolds at a deliberate pace and allows the audience to feel every point of anxiety and bubbling excitement for Jenny. Mulligan gives a star-making performance and practically glows with happiness during the movie’s key moments, making us love her even more. The plot may be conventional but the movie manages to be charming without much in the way of surprises. Still, An Education is a breezy, elegant, and clever movie that flies by, even if its biggest point of learning is that age-old chestnut that something too good to be true must be.
Nate’s Grade: A-