Bill Nighy still in sparkling touch by Richard Jones

A look at Their Finest (M)

finestWOMEN of a certain age still consider 67-year-old English actor Bill Nighy something of a heartthrob.

So with some anticipation I accompanied my wife and members of one of her book groups to see Nighy and Gemma Arterton in a World War 2 epic.

It’s 1940 at the height of the blitz and the British Ministry of Information’s film division is looking for an inspiring story to boost morale among soldiers and civilians alike.

Catrin Cole (Arterton) is a young advertising copywriter hired by the Ministry to work on a film script. There’s already a small writing team embedded within the organisation with bespectacled Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) the leading light.

With the stirring real-life story of the evacuation from Dunkirk still fresh in the collective British memory Catrin heads off down the coast from London to interview twin sisters.

They’d pinched their father’s boat to help in the evacuation. Only problem was a rope had entwined itself around the boat’s propeller and they didn’t get very far.

No problem for Catrin, even though she’s told quite forcefully her primary task as a scriptwriter is to pen ‘the slop’: female thoughts and dialogue.

Chastened but amazingly resolute Catrin  and the team get started embellishing the real-life story as they eliminate the rope tangle element and have the twin girls make it across the Channel and back on their little craft, carrying rescued soldiers.

Enter Bill Nighy as past-his-best Ambrose Hilliard – even his screen name is a delight – who plays the boozy uncle who’s on board to skipper the little crew.

Catrin and the writers have another add-on here, also. No male family member of the twins ever set foot aboard on their mission from south-east England.

With all that tossed aside the whole cast, crew and extras head off down to Devon for the shoot. Ambrose entertains the crew at a sing-along around a country pub’s piano and all’s going swimmingly until the Secretary for War (Jeremy Irons) intervenes.

He summons the director, producer and the writers back to London. With the Americans still uncommitted to the war, the film needs a hero from the USA.

So Catrin and the team hurriedly write a blonde US soldier into the plot and filming gets underway once more.

The whole project is meant to rally the public’s spirits with the bonus spinoff persuading the Americans to join the fight against Hitler.

That’s the Secretary’s message, anyway.

But because it’s wartime and because everything is in a state of flux there’s a couple of unexpected catastrophes on set and they’re completely separate from, and nothing to do with, the nightly air raids.

It’s a convincing 1940s re-enactment, with the sub-plot actually the film-within-a-film material.

Denmark director Lone Scherfig and her team of dressers and make-up people have re-created the early part of World War 2, the London of the period and its inhabitants (scrabbling around trying to buy food) very convincingly.

And, yes, the women in our little group thoroughly enjoyed Bill Nighy’s performance and reminisced about the actor as a person – especially his ability to laugh at himself.

I heard an amazing fact about Nighy. He can’t straighten the ring and little fingers on either hand because of a condition called Dupuytren’s contracture which causes the fingers to bend in towards the palm.

So he has to grip a glass of beer or a glass of wine with just his thumb and first two fingers. He says his handshakes must feel “a bit spooky.”

Extraordinary, but true.

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