This WWII drama film is a film within a film as The British Ministry of Information set about making a morale boosting propaganda film about the evacuation of Dunkirk during the Battle of Britain and Hitler's devastating bombing raids on London. Set in a 1940 war torn London, we are first introduced to screen writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) as he stands eating hot chips out of a newspaper wrapping while watching a film about the British war effort in a packed cinema. But the audience are paying little attention, and laughing at the on screen antics that they should be taking seriously. Such is the quality of the acting, the film-making and the messages being conveyed.
We then move to Welsh lass Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), an out of work Secretary who is summonsed to the Ministry of Information to attend for an interview to help write script for short information films to be played at cinemas across the land in between the main features. She lives with her husband Ellis Cole (Jack Huston) a moody artist who is unable to gain work or an exhibition for his paintings of dark industrial Britain, and who avoided the conscript due to an old Spanish Civil War leg wound. They are unable to pay the rent, so she accepts the gig at the Ministry for two pounds a week, but Ellis belittles Catrin's contribution and threatens to send her back to her home to the Welsh valley's under the smokescreen of protecting her from the Blitz. Needless to say, Catrin will have none of this and stands firm in her determination to take the job and the money that goes with it.
Quickly proving her worth, Catrin is promoted by Roger Swain (Richard E. Grant) the Head of Film at the Ministry of Information to work on a British propaganda film that shows 'authenticity and optimism' to the audience, and designed to lift the spirits and the hearts and minds of the British public at a time when they needed it the most. Catrin's role is to write the 'slop' - the women's dialogue that will appeal and be understood by a largely female audience. Her skills with dialogue and story telling catch the attention of Tom Buckley, who also works as a writer at the Ministry. He takes her under his wing to help work on a feature film about two sisters who supposedly helped rescue wounded British soldiers home from Dunkirk in their drunken fathers ramshackle steam boat across the English Channel back to Southend. Catrin visits the sisters for research purposes and discovers that the alleged 'true' story is subject to some poetic licence, and has to make a decision to report back the fact, or the fiction. She opts for the latter - after all, why let the truth get in the way of a good story!
Fairly soon the two writers aided by Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter) as another writer are frantically tapping away at their typewriters devising the foundation of the story, the dialogue, the dramatisation and the characters. They sign up ageing dapper screen lothario Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) much to his disgust having usually played romantic leads but now assigned to a supporting drunken uncle role described as 'a shipwreck of a man, sixties, looks older'. He initially rejects the offer to his Agent Sammy Smith (Eddie Marsan), but when Sammy is killed in an air raid, he is convinced by sister Sophie (Helen McCrory) to take the gig in the absence of anything else, and she becomes Hilliard's new Agent.
Filming starts on the propaganda film down in Devon, and then the team get a summons to attend the Ministry of War offices in London. There they meet with the Secretary of War (Jeremy Irons) who orders the crew to write in a part of an American to give the film an appeal to a US audience. Furthermore, the Secretary has just the man for the job - a very photogenic American-Norwegian fighter pilot Carl Lundbeck (Jack Lacy) who was great in silent films but can't act in the talkies to save his life!
During the location shoot Catrin and Buckley start to develop a fondness for each other, that culminates in him asking her to marry him. Buckley has learnt from another crew member that Catrin isn't in fact married to Ellis, but has taken his name out of propriety. Catrin refuses, and the pair argue.
When shooting returns to London for final studio filming, Catrin has had chance to cool off and spends the evening during an air raid rewriting the closing scenes of the film, and penning a note to Buckley with her change of heart. She leaves the finished script and her letter on Buckley's desk. The next day in the studio Catrin and Buckley share a moment of passion together out of view from the rest of the cast and crew. Buckley found the finished script and says she nailed it, and her letter too. Just when you thought of the happily ever after, a freak accident occurs that has far reaching ramifications for the couple, and which you would never have seen coming.
As the film draws to a close we see Catrin sneak into a packed cinema to see the fruits of her efforts up on the big screen. The film is a huge success and has struck the right chords with its target audience. She is persuaded by Hilliard to write the next screenplay for a film he is being pitched for and for which he has an idea of a character outline - a cat burgling air raid warden. Catrin sits down at her typewriter and begins to tap away with the seed of another film script slowly maturing.
This is a feel good film with just the the right amount of war torn London horrors and emotional upset to keep it real, grounded and believable. Underpinned too by some standout performances most notably from Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy, with Jeremy Irons, Eddie Marsan and Jack Lacy all doing well with the little screen time they have. The film within a film structure allows for all the levity and WWII era filmmaking quirks, tricks and smoke & mirrors camera work that adds an authenticity to this offering and is delivered by a sharp intelligent script, witty dialogue, solid acting all round and a message of the female inequality of the era being overcome by working women out of necessity.
-Steve, at Odeon Online-