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Gemma Arterton, left, and Bill Nighy are seen in Their Finest. Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a woman who ascends from her place as a faithful stay-at-home partner to bona-fide screenwriter who helps shape a propaganda film about a wartime rescue.
Gemma Arterton, left, and Bill Nighy are seen in Their Finest. Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a woman who ascends from her place as a faithful stay-at-home partner to bona-fide screenwriter who helps shape a propaganda film about a wartime rescue.

In Their Finest, Gemma Arterton’s greatest romance is with herself Add to ...

In Second World War-era London, the propaganda machine churned as the British film industry created cinematic calls to arms that hinged on the idea of rising from the ashes of the blitzkrieg. And that’s where Gemma Arterton comes in.

As the star of the new period romance Their Finest, Arterton plays Catrin Cole, who ascends from her place as a faithful stay-at-home partner to bona-fide screenwriter, having been recruited by the British government to help shape a propaganda film about a wartime rescue. It’s a transition from a woman who’s just trying to make rent to a visionary who won’t shrink back. Which is why, with two love stories running parallel to each other – particularly the one Catrin writes and the one she finds herself in the middle of – Their Finest’s most important is the the romance Catrin shares with herself.

“She finds this respect for herself [as] a series of events happens to her,” Arterton says over the phone from New York the other week. “She’s betrayed, she’s treated badly by men, she meets all these different people, and she realizes she’s able to do something, and it’s so moving. It’s very subtly done, it’s so gradual. She doesn’t realize she has this talent inside of her.”

Catrin’s subtlety is one of her assets. She keenly and quietly observes from her position as screenwriter – and as she observes her fellow storytellers, she learns to recognize the nuances and power dynamics between the team she’s collaborating with and the subjects whose story she wants to do justice to. Which she succeeds in: as she makes herself creatively indispensable to the notoriously cutthroat film industry, she becomes heartbreakingly aware that outside her workplace, she’s the opposite. She’s small.

“I liked that [Catrin] was obedient at first and timid and very observant, which makes her a great writer,” says Arterton, whose breakthrough role in 2008’s Quantum of Solace led to co-starring in such blockbuster fare as Clash of the Titans and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, before earning a Laurence Olivier nomination for her turn in London’s stage production of Nell Gwynn. “Often we don’t put observant people in leading roles because they don’t do that much, but she absorbs things and they inform her actions. I think the more she absorbs, the more she has inside her; it activates her.”

But, like Cole, that genre of activism burns slowly. Their Finest is not a movie in which its heroine boldly declares her new-found beliefs in feminism. And frankly, it’s frustrating to watch Catrin accept the wage gap as par for the course, or for her not to clap back at her husband (Jack Huston) who makes it quite clear he has no respect for her work. It’s frustrating, too, to watch her play by a set of professional rules that we – as people who know how the postwar era looked – know will shift and send women back home as their countrymen return from war. But that aggravation is what makes Catrin’s art – and Catrin herself – seem so real.

And so is the line exchanged between Arterton’s character and boss Phyl Moore (Rachael Stirling): “A lot of men are afraid we won’t go back into our boxes.”

“Yeah, and they did go back into their boxes,” Arterton reminds me. “And it was their kids – in the sixties – who [screwed] things up, basically. It’s such a fascinating time, the war, for the women’s movement. There was a lot of conflict but a lot of realizations where women were going, ‘Oh my God, I actually enjoy this job and enjoy having purpose outside of being a mother and homemaker.’ Like, actually being needed for something other than babymaking was an amazing thing for them. But it was such a short period of time and such a short burst of time, and they did have to go back into their boxes.”

Which is why Arterton believes our ingrained patriarchal norms will take generations to phase out.

“Something that fascinates me is that during the Second World War, women were given all this power,” she says. “They were needed, they were running the country, they were working in factories. But then they were also overwhelmed by it and couldn’t wait to get back into the house and raise families. And I think [with] men and women, it’s so deep within us – these roles – [that] now we have to educate our children and they have to educate their children and it’s going to take hundreds of years for us to reach equality really, where there isn’t a gender bias.”

So while still a romance and a coming-of-age story, Their Finest is also a gentle reminder that in the wake of our long, sad history of sexism, there are ways to fight and to rise and to assert yourself even if your brand of protest or activism is quiet or subtle. It’s possible to be a hero even by being yourself.

Midway through the film, there’s a line in which one character suggests that women don’t want to be the heroes at all – that they want to be saved by them. Which we know isn’t true, and is thankfully proven as such as the movie unfolds. But is Arterton a hero? At least in her own life?

“I think I do that,” she says hopefully. “What can you do but do that? You’ve only ever got yourself to save, no one’s going to do it for you.

“But I feel very conscious about my choices, whether I make bad or good choices, they are my choices. So you have to take responsibility for them.”

Their Finest opens April 14 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal before expanding to other Canadian cities April 21.

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