One of my favorite outcomes of watching so many films on a regular basis are the occasional, unintentionally complementary release dates of otherwise unrelated projects. That happened this week with “Their Finest” and “The Promise,” two films that were each improved by watching the other.
“Their Finest” (exclusively at the Tower Theatre) is a light(ish) drama about a young woman who finds herself drawn into the Ministry of Information’s film division, in London in 1940. The division’s purpose is to produce long and short films for public consumption that will rally the cinema-going masses with respect to the war effort – but they’re stuck in a rut, producing content that bores audiences rather than inspiring productivity.
The team is tasked with finding a suitable story to turn into a more successful feature, with a special appeal to women who are both watching their men being taken from them and having to carry much of the burden of industrial and food production in their absence. They’re looking for the kind of propaganda film that would motivate the characters at the center of stories we see in shows like Masterpiece Theatre’s “Home Fires.”
This results in a film that presents that story while also making fun of film production, the writing process, and the cast and crew involved. At the center of this is the task of writing a script that has to meet very specific parameters, with scenes of heroism, moments of levity, and a general ring of authenticity.
Which brings me to the experience of watching “The Promise,” which appeared to have come out of that same kind of writing environment. It’s a film that feels as though it was tasked with conveying a message more than with entertaining its audience. “The Promise” is essentially historical propaganda (which is not meant to imply inaccuracy) – a wartime history lesson masquerading as a love story. In it, the lives of the four primary characters intertwine, with an inevitable love triangle, against the backdrop of the under-reported and often denied Armenian genocide in First World War Turkey.
I came out of the “The Promise” saying to a colleague that you could almost recreate the checklist of necessary components and movements of the characters, much like in the writing scenes in “Their Finest.” “The Promise” depends on the characters witnessing multiple atrocities, ethnic cleansing and related political coverups, while also being in the exact places necessary to both interact with each other and participate in specific moments in history. It’s a project that deserves to be seen for its historic content far more so than for (and despite) its awkward and overly convenient narrative structure.
The two films even share the device of inserting an American character, in both cases a reporter in the thick of the action but theoretically an outside and independent witness to it (with even more similarities that can’t be shared without spoiling one or both plots). Seeing elements like this in one film and then watching the other where such inclusion is discussed is delightful.
Both films are well cast, with strong performances. Gemma Arterton stars as the young, female writer in “Their Finest” alongside her writing colleague and supervisor played by Sam Claflin and with a strong supporting cast, most notably led by Bill Nighy as an older actor having to come to terms with his own reduced role in the production. Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon play young well-to-do Armenians in “The Promise,” with Marwan Kenzari as a Turkish friend who suddenly finds himself on the other side of the ethnic divide. The heroic American is played by Jake Lacy in “Their Finest” and Christian Bale in “The Promise.”
Overall, “Their Finest” is the smoother and more consistent production and, in my opinion, the far better film, being both thought-provoking and thoroughly engaging. “The Promise” suffers not just from the structure but from uneven camera work, with certain scenes appearing to have been shot using different equipment or settings. Both are complemented by the other and both have historic significance. “The Promise” is the more cautionary and deserving lesson but with the result of feeling more like schoolwork than entertainment (not that the two are mutually exclusive). I watched “The Promise” first and that experience was improved by subsequently watching “Their Finest” – I’m not sure if the effect would have been as beneficial in reverse.
While less connected, narratively, this week also saw the opening of a smaller but very effective war movie “Sand Castle.” In a manner almost antithetical to the mass market deliveries considered above, “Sand Castle” opened yesterday on Netflix, without even a banner ad promoting its presence. Indeed, even knowing it was coming, I had to search for it by name, not having been able to find it in lists of newly released or trending titles. Nicholas Hoult stars as a young man who had the bad timing (and bad judgment) to have joined the army reserves purely for the G.I. Bill opportunities (college tuition payments), just weeks before 9/11, only to then find himself in active combat in the Iraq War. After an initial attempt to injure himself out of action fails, his attitude changes as his unit is assigned to deliver water to a town where local water pipes have been destroyed. There’s significant action and plot development, but this is primarily one man’s war experience, with the effects of war told on a microcosmic scale. It’s a worthwhile film and also an interesting example of modern film distribution, as a film that has made it to the big leagues in modern distribution terms and yet may still struggle to find an audience, hidden deep in the Netflix menus.