This is an enjoyable and interesting British film. In particular it has a very intriguing treatment of the ending.  Michael Walker authored a key study of ‘Endings in Cinema’ (Palgrave/Macmillan 2020), sadly he died in 2022. The subtitle of the book offers an idea of his treatment, ‘Thresholds, Water and the Beach’.

‘Thresholds’ is divided into categories and several apply to Their Finest: ‘Lovers Separation’: World War 2′: and ‘Wartime Homecoming’.  ‘Water is also relevant,  under ‘The Waterside’ we have,

“In the first [category], the characters are beside water. Here harbours are a distinct category, …”

Michael mentions Tokyo Story and another relevant title would be On the Waterfront. The book focuses on ‘ship and boat departures’. However, here there is a harbour which is the site, indirectly, of ‘lovers’ separation’, set in World War 2 and which follows a wartime homecoming.

Roy has reviewed the title but avoids retelling too much of the plot. I have written a comment on the film in the Talking Pictures Blog with a great deal more of the plot: I go into the plot and part of the ending here: necessary to bring out how the title relates to ‘Endings’.  To summarise for this discussion; this feature follows the career of Catrin (Gemma Atherton) who is recruited to write the dialogue for wartime film productions in 1940. She starts on documentaries and then is promoted to a feature film; she is to write the ‘slop’, which refers to women’s dialogue and roles in the narrative. The film within a film tells of the exploits of two sisters who set out to rescue stranded British soldiers at Dunkirk: part of a flotilla which is one of the most important myths for British representation of World War 2.

Tom, Parfitt, Catrin work on the plot

The transfer of the story to a script involves changes from the actual: the sisters never reached Dunkirk but Catrin keeps this secret: a US citizen, flying with the RAF, is added to the production in order to interest audiences in the USA: there are different versions of how a jammed propeller is fixed in the crossing: and there is a changed endings, partly to satisfy the US distributors, but partly because an accident disrupts the production before its completion.

The aftermath of the studio accident

We see the preparation and production of the film, titled ‘The Nancy Starling’. This is accompanied by a growing relationship between Catrin and the chief script writer Tom (Sam Caflin). But Tom is killed  is a studio accident. The accident forces the production to change crucial scenes which were not already shot. Catrin has to work on these changes. However, the traumatised Catrin finishes her work but cannot bring herself to attend the film’s premiere.

Premiere poster

One of the actors, Ambrose (playing Uncle Frank, i.e. Bill Nighy) persuades her to go to see the film. We accompany Catrin as she sits through a screening of the film, shot in academy and Technicolor and enjoyed by an appreciative audience. One aspect of The Nancy Starling is that Rose (Angela Ralli-Thomas, i.e. Stephanie Hyam) is courted both by the American character, Brannigan {played by Carl Lundbeck, i.e. Jake Lacy) and a British Tommy, Johnnie (Wyndham Best i.e. Hubert Burton). The film ends with Rose saying goodbye to Brannigan, (who narrates in a voice-over dubbed for the character) and then she is seen in a two shot with her Johnnie; resolving both relationships but satisfying the US distributor. The final sequence includes the harbour which featured in the film and a long shot of a couple sitting on the quayside. Only Catrin, (and we the audience) will know that this a test shot taken at the beginning of the shoot and the couple are actually Catrin and Tom.

The test shot of the harbour

This is a moment of real emotion; Catrin sees her lost love and, ironically, the couple’s situation is the reverse of that implicit in the shot’s position in the finished film. Thus the moment offers both ‘lovers’ separation’ alongside ‘wartime homecoming’. It is a rich and complex motif. It is also, as far as I can tell, a rare example of one of Michael Walkers endings  in a film within a film. A parallel is Day for Night / La Nuit américaine, François Truffaut’s 1973 film about the making of a film: but the film within a film does not resolve in one of Michael’s ending: though the ending of the actual film has crossovers with Their Finest.

However, in the part of the book devoted to beaches Michael does write about films that include home movies in their endings. Given the shot of the harbour is a test shot, only included in the film due to the studio accident, it acts like a home movie for Catrin.

Michael’s  examples include the well-known Philadelphia  (1993) and the less well-known Australian title Little Fish (2005). He comments:

” … in cases where the home movie is shown in retrospect, the effect is usually poignant – the image involves a past happiness or innocence which contrasts with the present. It is thus not surprising that many of these examples occur within the context of bereavement – one of the characters in the home movie is now dead.”

This is exactly how the sequence in Their Finest works. And the feature, in some ways paralleling Tokyo Story, uses a harbour more in line with those of Michael’s beaches rather than the harbours with arrivals and departures.

The main narrative in Their Finest has a much more upbeat ending. The final sequence shows Catrin, working alongside Parfitt (Paul Ritter, a colleague of Sam), on a new script involving air raid wardens. We already know that Ambrose will star in the film. As Phyl (Rachel Stirling – a Ministry of Information executive) calls to check on progress she advises Catrin to give the feature a ‘happy ending’.

Their Finest was released in 2016 and Michael, who was already ill from a rare blood disorder] does not appear to have seen this title. In other parts of the book, under ‘Tropes and Motifs’, and in the most substantial discussion of ‘beach endings’ the book traces a whole series of endings which work as recurring motifs about characters relationships and fates. There are also numerous discussions of films. One relevant is here is the ending of Titanic; there are parallels in the reuniting of the divided couple here: though Titanic  has a reunion almost as a dream whilst Their Finest is both ironic and tragic.

As usual the transfer of a book to a movie led to an amount of the written story, ‘Their  Finest Hour and a Half’  by Lissa Evans, 2009, being removed. This applies to both characters and plot. There is much more about the blitz and other characters living/working under it: a second couple in the book are not in the film: in the book Ambrose is a more central figure: Sam is younger than in the book: and we learn more about life in the location setting.  The book ends with Catrin going to a cinema to see the feature, here titled ‘Forbidden Voyage’.  In the book the final voice-over is by Hannigan, the US character in the book, who is dubbed here by Ambrose, and the wording is slightly different from the film,

“you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m not leaving before the end. Because I know now that it has to be the right sort of ending, the sort of ending that’s worth fighting for.”

over panorama of the quayside

Catrin stays to watch the feature a second time.

“She glanced round at her fellow picture-goers (also staying for a repeat performance) and felt a flicker of pride that they too wanted to stay.

It was a good film.

Some day she’d write one that was even better.”

The substantial amount of character and plot in the movie are more or less the same as in the book. What is added is more cover of the production of the feature. And we see rather than read of the finished film. One clip is of the rescue of a dog by Johnnie, near Dunkirk.

The audience

This applies especially to the end of the film within a film. This includes a sequence where Rose untangles the propeller.

Rose with Lillly at the propeller
The audience

The boat, here named ‘Redoubtable’. reaches home to applause from the audience.

Whilst the quayside appears there is nothing resembling the significance of a shot containing any of the characters. Like several successful additions in the movie version the harbour shot of Catrin and Sam has been added, presumably at the script stage. Note, in the production of ‘The Nancy Starling’ the dialogue notes that the location is in Devon; different from the book. But in the Pinewood Films production the harbour location is on the Welsh coast. This means that the Devon location faces East but the Welsh location faces West; creating a mismatch of the camera angle. This shot fits with the examples which Michael describes in his book.

The final quayside shot

Their Finest is a finely produced feature. Shot in colour and widescreen 2.35:1, running 117 minutes; it was co-produced by BBC Films with (among others) Welsh Screen where some location filming was done, and distributed in Britain by Lionsgate. Screenings were from a 2K DCP and it seems (difficult to find information these days) it was shot digitally. One irritation was the variations in aspect ratios for the 1940s film sequences. Those seen in production are also in 2.35:1: clips seen in the cinema, those in cinemas, studio viewings and on a moviola are in academy: however, there are also full screen clips which have been reframed to 2.35:1.


This is another example of the baleful influence of television and one such clip is running under the opening credits. Unfortunately audiences, and many critics, do not seem to notice.