On the surface, this is the kind of feel-good WWII movie that the British do so well. Made, though, by Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education), it has a subtle complexity, a slightly contrived but interesting subtext and a feminist slant that makes it more interesting than it seems (and almost works).
Secretary Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is unexpectedly co-opted into a job writing screenplays for feature films during the Blitz in a bid to improve morale. One of few women in a sea of cigarette-smoking men, her job is to write the ‘slop’ – the dialogue of the women. Her writing partners are Tom Buckley (a rather dowdy, bespectacled and mustachioed Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter but I had to look up his name as he’s essentially just a well-meaning sidekick) and they show her the ropes of constructing a crowd-pleasing formula for a film. She stumbles upon a real story of twins Ruby and Lily who piloted their father’s boat over to Dunkirk on D-Day to rescue soldiers and the idea for the perfect propaganda film is born.
Played quite seriously, it is the secondary characters who give the film some much-needed heart and humour. Bill Nighy plays washed up thespian Ambrose Hilliard who takes the role of the alcoholic uncle in the film only under pressure from his agent. He plays it like a cross between Victor Maynard in Wild Target and Billy Mack in Love Actually – pompous, clueless and irascible and prone to twitchy posturing – but lights up every scene. Rachael Stirling (Bletchley Circle) is Phyl Moore, a mannish stylishly suit-wearing and no nonsense lesbian from the Ministry who gets all the best lines. Of Hilliard, she says, “He is an actor. Unless you have reviewed him, had intercourse with him, or done both simultaneously, he won’t remember you.”
Catrin is a spunky and likeable character and the chemistry between her and Buckley is largely underplayed but believably built. Many other characters are stereotyped – dilettante husband, clueless and entitled government officials, plucky ordinary folk – but they set the scene for the rather predictable story line where we know who we are supposed to barrack for and who to dislike.
Where the story gets interesting is in its ‘film within a film within a film’ premise and this may not be immediately apparent. I might have been a bit slow but it was only when I mused on the film afterwards, particularly an irksome and unexpected plot turn around three-quarters of the way through that I struggled to make sense of, that I realised that the characters and story arc of the film I was watching were mimicking the film within the film, Dunkirk, and the elements of a crowd-pleasing film articulated early on by Buckley and Parfitt. The hero, the dog, the washed up old-timer who is shown to have heart, the elusiveness of a perfect ending, the ability of women to save the day – all are there. The desire to have authenticity and also optimism.
For a film that promotes itself as an “affirmation of women’s contributions to the film industry” and has a female director as well as writers, producers, editor and many crew, it doesn’t do a great job at giving women a voice. There are only three significant female characters, the third being Sophie Smith (Helen McGrory), the sister of Ambrose’s agent, and although all three are shown to be independent, intelligent and courageous, it is only Catrin who is not peripheral to the story.
The feminist slant is to show the proof of Phyl’s words, “They’re afraid they won’t be able to put us back in the box when this is over, and it makes them belligerent.” We know from history that WWII began a shift in attitudes towards women and work but it was slow to change and not quite as easy as for these three white women.
Currently in cinemas
Bechdel test – pass