Movie reviews: Their Finest; Handsome Devil; and Rules Don't Apply

Declan Burke takes a look at the latest films to hit the big screen

Movie reviews: Their Finest; Handsome Devil; and Rules Don't Apply

Their Finest ****

1940. As London soldiers on through the Blitz, the Ministry for Information decides that a good old-fashioned slab of propaganda is the very thing to lift the spirits. When newspaper columnist Catrin (Gemma Arterton) unearths a story about twin sisters who sailed to France to shuttle Allied troops off the beach at Dunkirk, the scene is set for an uplifting tale of the British people at Their Finest (12A). It isn’t long, however, before Catrin discovers that truth is the first casualty of war …

Adapted by Gaby Chiappe from Lissa Evans’s novel, and directed by Lone Scherfig, Their Finest is a hugely entertaining peek behind the scenes of movie-making during wartime.

Employed by the prickly, cynical screenwriter Buckley (Sam Clafin) to write ‘the slop’ – i.e., women’s dialogue – Catrin quickly proves her worth as a screenwriter in her own right, developing a bland potboiler into a nuanced drama that pays tribute to women’s contribution to the war effort, in the process learning that movies – propaganda or otherwise – are ‘real life with the boring bits cut out.’ Gemma Arterton turns in a career-best performance here, a vivid depiction of a woman fighting not only to be taken seriously on her own terms, but also on behalf of women relegated to playing bit parts in society at large, and she gets strong support from Sam Clafin, Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Irons, although it’s Bill Nighy, playing a flaky old roué of a veteran actor, who steals the show with his impeccable comic timing.

Handsome Devil ***

Handsome Devil (15A) opens with Ned (Fionn O’Shea) returning to the boarding school he regards as a prison, not least because anyone who doesn’t worship the school’s religion, rugby, is regarded as ‘gay’. Forced to share with new roommate Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), who proves himself a sensation at scrum-half for the school’s rugby team, Ned fears the worst, only to discover that he and Conor have more in common than first impressions might suggest. Written and directed by John Butler, Handsome Devil is something of an Irish take on Dead Poets Society, as the two-man society of Ned and Conor bond over a shared love of good books and classic pop music, their non-conformist attitudes encouraged by their English teacher, Mr Sherry (Andrew Scott).

A parable advocating diversity and tolerance, the film offers a worthy and timely message, although the story does plod along in largely expected fashion with little by way of surprise or revelation to divert it from what feels like an inevitable denouement.

Fionn O’Shea and Nicholas Galitzine are individually good at conveying the physical gawkiness and emotional awkwardness of teenage boys, but they fail to create a convincing chemistry when the pair begin to bond, with the result that the second half of the movie is less persuasive than its set-up. Andrew Scott is in excellent form as the surprisingly hardboiled and cynical English teacher, and there are strong turns from Michael McElhatton and Moe Dunford in the minor roles, but Handsome Devil, although solid throughout, fizzles where it really ought to spark.

Rules Don’t Apply ***

Three movies battle for screentime in Rules Don’t Apply (12A), writer-director-producer-star Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes biopic (of sorts). One has the increasingly cagey movie producer and airline magnate (Beatty) nervous that his board of directors (Oliver Platt among them) will wrestle his company away from him if they suspect he’s non compos mentis. Another has driver Frank (Alden Ehrenreich) work his way into a guarded Hughes’ inner sanctum to become his trusted advisor. The third has starlet and devout Christian Marla (Lily Collins) kept on contract and groomed by Hughes to service his, ahem, needs; she and Frank, although forbidden in their oppressive contracts (they can’t even talk about their employer), are drawn to each other.

Scenes are kept short so the narrative bounces along, jumping around the stories with little concern for tonal continuity, while the appearance of famous names in tiny roles can distract (Annette Bening, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, and Steve Coogan pop up). But Beatty gets more than a few things right, particularly in stripping away Hughes’ mystique.

Initially shot in shadows or behind curtains, Beatty slowly draws Hughes out, hypothesising that his insecurity is down to missing his late “daddy”. Beatty, who hasn’t been this captivating since 1991’s Bugsy, has fun with Hughes’ subtle mannerisms; there’s always a delay between thought and speech, as if he’s worried what he’s about to say will confirm the board’s, and everyone else’s, suspicions that’s he’s losing his mind.

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