Gemma Arterton’s new film, Their Finest, is about second world war propaganda. Her character, who is bookish and sensitive, is allowed — because of war — to write film scripts. She discovers two girls — two ordinary, pale, unhappy girls — who steal their father’s boat and sail to Dunkirk for the rescue. She thinks this story will swell hearts: and so she, and her collaborator (Sam Claflin), make a British Casablanca about Dunkirk. They know there must be loss, or nothing has value.
I marvelled over two things in Their Finest, even as I dislike the title. First, how the pale, unhappy girls are transformed, for the film inside the film, into beautiful actresses, all lipstick and ankles, with shadow brushed away. And then how the Arterton character fights, against her nature, for the girls to rescue themselves at the climactic moment: they mend the propeller. The other film-makers don’t understand her, for that is not what women do. Why can’t the dying man (Bill Nighy) mend the propeller; or the other dying man? Why can’t the dog mend the propeller?
Gemma Arterton has just abandoned a career as a Hollywood film actress, who was always in lipstick, and without shadow. She wanted to make this film, she tells me, in her beautifully elocuted voice — she sounds like a Hollywood actress of the 1930s playing an Englishwoman — because ‘often, with female-centric films, we feel we need to have these bold characters and sometimes women aren’t like that. They are quiet and reserved or a bit shy — or they don’t know what to say.’
She was born in Kent and left school at 16 to, essentially, join the circus: a theatre school. Her first part was Tallulah in Bugsy Malone — though Tallulah was 12, you would struggle to find a better part in Hollywood today — and she loved ‘the silliness’ of acting. She grew up in a household of women; acting was a way to express herself and meet boys. ‘Infantile is my natural disposition,’ she says, but she says ‘infantile’ in French, which makes me wonder how true it is. She was told she needed to go ‘to classical drama school’ to be ‘refined’. She had a Kent accent, and she does it for me: ‘I was like, “Oh yeah, alwight, Shakespeare.”’
At Rada, she says, ‘I had a big chip on my shoulder and I have only just gotten’ — now she does an Americanism — ‘over this chip.’ The chip was, ‘I’m common so I’m not as worthy as the others here. Because I haven’t read all the books.’ Most Rada students are graduates. They were ‘proper, studied English literature at Oxford. I had just left the circus.’ She giggles. ‘They were talking about these writers and I had never heard of them.’ She feared she didn’t know enough, because she hadn’t read ‘all the books’.
I struggle to find a fixed point in Arterton, because she is an actor. I can say that she is considerate, engaged, and somehow soothing to be around, because there is a studied poise to her — and I believe in all of it — but the nerdy side feels particularly heartfelt. She is hardly the first woman with a perfect face to love a book. She read all the books, she says, and her voice changed.
She does a young actress, just out of Rada: ‘Hello, nice to meet you, how are you?’ She sounds like Diana Quick, but more exhausting. ‘It’s a nervous thing, wanting to be liked, wanting to get a job.’ Drama school is very intense, she says; for a while afterwards you worry if your tongue is in the right position, and if you are sitting up straight. This, perhaps, is why she seems remote, and why she is good in terrible films — Clash of the Titans, for instance. She is not, I realise now, in Clash of the Titans. She is absent, and in a film of her own.
She worked in Hollywood, but she wished she didn’t. She had a ‘working-class attitude — don’t turn it down, you’re lucky to get it, graft, and it’s a large amount of money, more than my Mum gets paid in a year’. Even so, she was on set ‘thinking this is shit, this is not why I wanted to be an actor, I am not enjoying being spoken to like I am an idiot’.
How so? ‘A couple of times I was spoken to as if I had a tiny IQ. Or just how you might speak to someone who — if you were a bad person — you thought was stupid. I chose to do those films,’ she adds, ‘so I take the responsibility. But it didn’t sit well with me.’
Eventually, on a film called Runner Runner — perhaps they thought the title would be better if they simply duplicated it — she thought, ‘Enough. I am going to give up acting in film. I will sell my house and buy a tiny flat and do theatre.’ She whispers the title Runner Runner slowly, as if the memory makes her anxious. I watched the trailer, because I couldn’t face the film. Here she pouts, and seems to have been painted bronze; although the film-makers didn’t know it, it is a portrait of unfulfilled potential, and that is to give the trailer of Runner Runner more credit than it deserves.
‘It was a macho, aggressive environment,’ she says. She does a voice: ‘“We’ll fire him, we’ll fire her!”’ It starred Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake.
Instead, she became a producer. Her first film is called The Escape, with Dominic Cooper, and it is about a woman who leaves her children. She didn’t write it, because the actors improvised, but it came, she says, ‘from my brain’. It is set — and I love this, although she says it was not conscious — in Kent.
It is, she says, about ‘desire and creativity — if you do not have an outlet do you self-implode?’ It is about her family: ‘My mum, my grandmother, and me.’ Her mother had her first child at 23, ‘and it [art] is just something you don’t do if you are working class’ (and a mother). Her grandmother was a painter and poet, who suffered from depression: ‘More than my mother, there is something of her in this film.’
She is tired, you see, of Hollywood women, who are either ‘perfect beings or villains. Women aren’t like that in real life. They have nuance.’ It is true. And sometimes they mend the propeller.
Their Finest, 12A, is in cinemas now.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.