Oh what a lovely war film: Gemma Arterton leads a cracking cast in this witty, poignant tale of Britain's finest hour

Their finest (12A)

Verdict: Beguiling wartime drama?

Rating:

The Zookeeper's Wife (12A)

Verdict: Schindler's List meets Doctor Dolittle?

Rating:

For a Dane, director Lone Scherfig has a remarkably keen eye and ear for the intricate details of British class and period.

Her 2009 feature An Education wonderfully evoked suburban London in the Sixties, The Riot Club (2014) went to town on badly-behaved Oxbridge toffs, and now here’s Their Finest, a beguiling romantic not-quite-comedy set in 1940.

Like An Education, which was based on the memoir by journalist Lynn Barber, Their Finest has also sprung from a book, in this case a novel by Lissa Evans about the making of a propaganda film thinly disguised as a drama, at the height of the Blitz.

And like An Education, except more so, the story is, above all, about a particular young woman asserting her place in a world ruled by men. This is the engaging Catrin Cole (charmingly played by Gemma Arterton), not a radiant English rose but a sunny Welsh daffodil, who has arrived in wartime London from Ebbw Vale with struggling artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston).

Keeping calm and carrying on: Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy in Their Finest

Keeping calm and carrying on: Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy in Their Finest

She is a talented copywriter, who goes for an interview with the Ministry of Information for what she thinks is a secretarial job. In fact they want her to craft ‘women’s dialogue’ for their propaganda features.

The contemptuous film-industry word for female chatter in such films is ‘slop’ (in reality it was more commonly known as ‘nausea’), and we are left in no doubt by Gaby Chiappe’s script, which just occasionally errs on the heavy-handed side, that ministry women are third-class citizens.

The one female who has risen in the ranks is a rather butch lesbian (improbably yet nicely played by the decidedly non-butch Rachael Stirling). But Catrin finds herself firmly at the bottom of the heap.

‘Obviously we can’t pay you as much as the chaps,’ she is told by her pompous new boss, played, or rather over-played, by Richard E. Grant.

On the whole, Chiappe — an experienced TV writer (Lark Rise To Candleford, Shetland, The Level) here making her feature-film debut — does a lovely job of weaving Catrin’s doughty career progress in with her burgeoning feelings for screenwriting colleague Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin).

Conveniently, Ellis turns out to be rather a rotter, whereas Buckley, beneath his sneery, superior air, is a decent sort of cove, with a matinee-idol smile.

Director Lone Scherfig has a remarkably keen eye and ear for the intricate details of British class and period

Director Lone Scherfig has a remarkably keen eye and ear for the intricate details of British class and period

Their project, one designed not only to repair morale left in tatters by the Luftwaffe, but also to persuade the Americans to come to the aid of the plucky Brits, is a film based on a newspaper story about heroic twin sisters from Essex.

Catrin is despatched to Southend to get the sisters’ story; how they borrowed their father’s rickety fishing boat and braved the Channel to rescue troops trapped at Dunkirk. Never mind that it isn’t entirely true; facts are pliable in wartime.

Besides, if all that were not rousing enough, one of the Dunkirk survivors brings home a terrier in his kitbag.

‘Authenticity, optimism, and a dog!’ cries the producer, Hungarian émigré Gabriel Baker (Henry Goodman), presumably based on the great filmmaker Emeric Pressburger. He knows just how to appeal to British sensibilities.

Their Finest is a serious tale, however. It is littered with casualties of war and lurches in some unexpected directions with several, tragic twists. Yet it is leavened with plenty of deft comic touches.

Chiappe does a lovely job of weaving Catrin’s doughty career progress in with her burgeoning feelings for screenwriting colleague Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin)

Chiappe does a lovely job of weaving Catrin’s doughty career progress in with her burgeoning feelings for screenwriting colleague Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin)

Mostly, these are supplied by Bill Nighy, as a vain, mannered old ham of an actor, called Ambrose Hilliard. There’s no point cracking any kind of gag about Nighy being perfectly cast in such a role, since he’s already dropped them all himself in the publicity interviews.

Besides, he really is very funny, at one point investing ‘semolina pudding’ with exactly the same predatory loucheness Leslie Phillips used to get out of ‘Ding Dong!’

Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory, as Hilliard’s agent and his sister, provide sterling comic support.

And Jeremy Irons pops up, too, enjoying himself hugely in a cameo as a starchy Ministry of War mandarin.

The excellence of the cast is but one of many reasons to see this film.

It’s witty and warm-hearted, and genuinely poignant at times, but, maybe most usefully of all, it offers a fresh, enlightening perspective on a period so frequently depicted by the movies that I didn’t think there were any true, or true-ish, stories left to tell.

It turns out that there are.

?

In fact, here’s another one. Who knew that a couple who ran a zoo in Nazi-occupied Poland used the cover of fetching vegetable peelings, ostensibly to feed to their pigs, to smuggle people out of the benighted Warsaw ghetto? I didn’t. Yet hundreds of Jews were saved in this way.

In The Zookeeper’s Wife, Jessica Chastain (also the executive producer) plays the title role, Antonina Zabinska, who, at the start of the picture, is a kind of Polish Joy Adamson, communing with the animals, cooing ‘good morning sweetheart’ to a snarling tiger, and saving the life of a baby elephant.

But a portentous caption tells us it’s the summer of 1939. Soon, the air rings less with the braying of zebra, more with the stamp of the jackboot. The saintly Antonina and her almost equally noble husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) must decide whether to stand by their Jewish friends, even as their beloved zoo is devastated by Germans so heartless that they manage to resist the charms even of a cuddly rhino.

Yet the brave couple do more than that. Much more.

In The Zookeeper’s Wife , Jessica Chastain (also the executive producer) plays the title role, Antonina Zabinska

In The Zookeeper’s Wife , Jessica Chastain (also the executive producer) plays the title role, Antonina Zabinska

You’ll detect a cynical note in this assessment, and indeed Niki Caro’s film, adapted from a non-fiction bestseller by Diane Ackerman, positively invites cynicism.

A charismatic German zoologist, played by Daniel Bruhl, has only to slip into a Nazi officer’s uniform to turn into a monster.

One minute he cherishes animals as much as any zoologist, the next he is shooting a stray vulture, and yelling: ‘Haf it stuffed und mounted!’

And that’s not all; he also orders a fiendish breeding programme, whereby extinct bison will be brought back to life practically wearing swastika armbands.

But it’s the factual basis of all this that saves the movie. It might be unsubtle, the Warsaw ghetto might be represented as a mildly unpleasant place to live instead of the hellhole that it really was, and there are legitimate question marks over the decision to render the dialogue in heavily-accented English.

Nonetheless, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells an amazing true story, there are some remarkable set-pieces (mainly involving fleeing animals) and who can honestly begrudge Chastain, a fine actress, a rare chance to emulate the great Meryl, and Streepishly deliver her lines in a sing-song Polish accent?

Not even Bruhl’s Nazi geneticist could dream up a hybrid of Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List and Doctor Dolittle, but that, intriguingly, is sort of what this film is.

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.