Their Finest Hour and a Half is an amusing historical novel about the propaganda industry in Britain during the Second World War. It tells the story of making a film about a heroic rescue from Dunkirk that bears only a slight resemblance to the events that inspired it. The Ministry of Information needs films oozing passion, patriotism, and “a bit with a dog,” (to quote Shakespeare in Love); this film must be made despite hundreds of obstreperous extras, a disobedient dog who only understands Yiddish, dubious authenticity, a leading man with a sense of entitlement that far outstrips his stature in the acting world, and conflicting demands from the War Office and the Ministry of Information – for instance, an American must be added to inspire audiences in the States to support the war.
There are several main characters, and the tale jumps about at quite a speed, which takes a while to get used to. The main focus is on Catrin Cole, who is trying to find a place for herself in the male-dominated film industry in aid of the war effort, and until this film has only been involved in the two minute “walls have ears” kind of thing. She has an awkward relationship with her husband and flirtatious banter with her bosses. Edith is a costumer at Madame Tussaud’s with a quietly miserable life, and a nasty relationship with her landlady; when the house is bombed in the Blitz she is forced to move to the rural seaside – where the film is about to be made. Ambrose is an actor having trouble with losing his youthful good looks and the fact that the only parts available to him any more are corpses and tipsy uncles. Their stories don’t exactly intertwine; rather, they run parallel throughout the novel, the film set acting as a catalyst for change in each of their lives.
Among the most interesting parts are the ones describing London and its people at war; they reminded me slightly of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (a far superior novel in terms of literary merit but not as much fun). The cynicism of the film’s scriptwriters and Edith’s quiet confusion seem likely, while the chaos of the actual film-making is full of slapstick humor with occasional still moments of poignancy. It’s more about things that happen rather than about why things happen – occasionally some motivations felt a bit jarring. I found it overall very enjoyable – it was easy to get swept up in the plot, and the characters are by and large sympathetic.
Evans, Lissa. Their Finest Hour and a Half. London: Black Swan Books, 2010. Longlisted for the Orange Prize.