Even if Gemma Arterton’s latest movie strays from her proclivity for darker storytelling, ‘Their Finest’ once again highlights her innate ability to portray strong women in challenging circumstances. Jake Taylor tells us more…
Since making her cinematic breakthrough a decade ago as the head girl at notoriously anarchic all-girls school St. Trinian’s, Gemma Arterton has embodied a number of iconic British female roles. From her turn as self-proclaimed ‘thinking man’s crumpet’ and Bond girl Strawberry Fields in 2008’s Quantum of Solace to her portrayal of literary lasses Tess Durbeyfield and Tamara Drewe, Arterton’s blend of English rose beauty and feisty feminist qualities have earned her a global fanbase.
The Gravesend-born star’s latest project, Their Finest, set in World War II, successfully capitalises on these qualities. Alongside some of Britain’s biggest talents – Bill Nighy, Jeremy Irons, Sam Claflin and Helen McCrory all appear – Arterton’s depiction of Welsh copywriter-turned-Ministry-of-Defence-movie-script-maestro, Catrin Cole – based on real-life Ealing Studios screenwriter Diana Morgan – is being lauded as one of her most assured performances to date.
“This film is a lovely and warm story that is optimistic and gives you a sense of hope,” the 31-year-old explains. “I also liked the fact that [it] revolves around a female character who is a feminist without knowing it. Catrin is very gentle and she’s living in a very sexist era where women were far from being treated as equals, but she also knows when to put her foot down to defend herself and not get pushed around.”
Arterton’s character is pushed into a role only available to her because the war effort had removed so many young men from their occupations. Taking a job with the Ministry of Information’s Film Division, Cole, a copywriter, is instructed to add a feminine touch to the scripts of short propaganda movies. As she turns her attention to a film centred on Dunkirk she develops from writing the desired, derogatorily perceived female dialogue, into creating female characters who defy the period’s expectations of passivity. Naturally she has to fight against her male colleagues, her bosses and her own husband to protect her professional career and her characters’ enduring agency.
“With all the men going off to war, women were suddenly called upon to work in munitions factories, drive buses, serve in the war office, and assume positions of responsibility that had generally been closed to them,” Arterton explains. She thinks the film will be an inspiration for women in its own gentle way, creating a hopeful spirit for audiences.
“There is a powerful message there, but it’s done in an indirect way rather than stamping your foot about it and being very outspoken. My character stands up for herself when she needs to and she becomes very caught up in her work when she realises how important it can be.”
Although Their Finest is a clear continuation of Arterton’s career-long penchant for playing strong-minded, independent females, there’s one big difference to the rest of her big screen back catalogue.
“I do prefer films that are darker, and there is this artistic tendency to want to make those darker and troubling kinds of films,” she reveals. “But with this story I was so happy to be part of a film that gives you a good feeling and makes you feel happy. When I look at the world today and how there seems to be so much fighting everywhere, I think it’s important to remain optimistic and hopeful.”
If her latest release has deviated somewhat from her desire to take on disturbing work, then Arterton’s recent return to the stage has sufficiently scratched that lingering itch. As the titular character in the George Bernard Shaw-penned Saint Joan, Arterton appears as one of history’s most incredible heroines: Joan of Arc.
“Saint Joan is very sharp and independent,” the star explains. “She has this fight to her character. I think I have that kind of spirit too, so for me to be able to play her is very exciting. That was one of those opportunities I really jumped at.”
In the modern day, perceptions of women in Hollywood are perhaps slowly changing for the better. The chance to tread the boards where she was first bitten by the acting bug, however, reminded Arterton of the way that the world of the stage has long been ahead of the silver screen when it comes to equal opportunities and choosing talent over appearance.
“I started out in the theatre; how I looked never once came into my mind in terms of my motivations to pursue acting because it doesn’t come into play in the theatre,” she opines. “If you’re good for the role, you get the part. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone being hired because of their looks.
“It’s very different for a large percentage of the movie industry, but when that’s a deciding factor on whether you get the job or not, it’s laying shaky foundations for the rest of the experience. It’s not a good foot to start out on. Some producers and directors care, some don’t, and I now make a conscious decision to work with those who don’t!”
Gemma with co-star Bill Nighy at the New York premiere of ‘Their Finest’