As 2018 begins, a movie that takes us back to the battle of Dunkirk ranks in my top 25 films of 2017.

That surprises me more than anybody. It is, after all, a war movie. If you’ve been reading my reviews for long, you know that I rarely see a war movie that makes me grateful I took the time. Too many of them look like productions that attracted big-name directors so that they can dazzle audiences with panoramic spectacles of violence and then sober them up with solemn conclusions.

But not this one. This one surprised me. Just when I thought I had it figured out, it turned and became something more thoughtful than I’d anticipated.

And here’s the biggest surprise: It stars Gemma Arterton. That’s a name I associate with films like Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia, not movies I’d like to see more than once.

Their Finest, not Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Unlike Nolan’s shock-and-awe spectacle, Their Finest doesn’t aim to make us cling to our seats during white-knuckle battle scenes, nor does it challenge us with by bending its storyline into a non-chronological pretzel.

Their Finest is a movie that knows it’s a movie, that wears its genre conventions on its sleeve, and that fumbles those conventional moments as often as it succeeds with them. But along the way, it delivers surprisingly subtle, quiet, poignant moments, and flashes of real life that I found surprisingly affecting — surprising because the short blurb I’d read had prepared me for a light romantic comedy, the kind of BBC-ish thing you’d watch on TV on a Sunday evening.

Gemma Arterton in Their Finest, playing a character with a unique superpower: screenwriting!

You can find romantic comedy here, but this film has higher ambitions. And that should be no surprise It’s directed by Lone Scherfig. And he directs Arterton in a way that shows she’s much better than most of her movies have shown. (He did the same for Carey Mulligan and Rosamund Pike, who gave career-making performances for him in An Education.) In fact, she reminds me here of the Kate Beckinsale who charmed us in Cold Comfort Farm.

Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a writer assigned to script informational films for England’s Ministry of Information. She and her husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a war artist, are that rare big-screen couple who work as a creative team. But this is 1940, and when a woman makes more money than a man, you can guess that there will be trouble.

As the marriage struggles, Catrin follows her curiosity to discover the dramatic story of twin sisters who (allegedly) participated in the daring Dunkirk rescue operation. She senses the potential for a big-screen crowdpleaser. This leads her into the mess of commercial filmmaking, in which she must learn to get along with cowriters (Sam Claflin and Paul Ritter); in which actors argue about the glamour-factor of the parts they’re assigned; and competing interests seek to manipulate the script for their own agendas.

One of those intrusive forces is, of course, the United States. On orders of England’s Secretary of War (Jeremy Irons in a small but standout performance), the studio must feature an American hero in this movie — historical accuracy be damned! And that means Catrin and Company must graft on a major storyline for an actor uniquely unfit for, well… a speaking role. The stage is set for wince-inducing comedy.

Arterton and Nighy play a champion of truth in artmaking and a champion of, well, his own ego.

That other 2017 Dunkirk-focused film aims to astonish us with soaring views of soldiers struggling to survive. And it does so, no doubt. But aren’t you weary — as I am — of battlefield spectacle? Have you, too, become skeptical of the value of films that ask us to feel the trauma, to experience the bone-jarring impacts, to duck as surround-sound missiles rocket over our shoulders, and then thank them for it?

When I wrote Auralia’s Colors, I wanted to write the kind of fantasy novel that I very rarely read — on that avoids getting bogged down in the genre’s most familiar routines. I avoided battle scenes, scenes of wizards facing off with monsters, and moments when heroes discover magical talismans, etc. While there are wars happening in my characters’ world, we learn about them from their distant repercussions on others, or by picking up hints about them in dialogue and rumors. I knew I wouldn’t draw a crowd by pursuing unconventional scenes, but I wanted to write what I would find challenging and surprising. And I bring the same desire for surprise to the movies. Big Spectacle Events have been done so often that they rarely ever interest or move me.

Two screenwriters struggle to reconcile truth and entertainment in Their Finest. © Nicola Dove

Their Finest is a wartime film that shows us other people, other places, other aspects of war that we’re not accustomed to seeing. This is, I believe, an essential service: It teaches us to understand more fully that war’s repercussions go far beyond the combat zones, disrupting and damaging everyone in ways both large and small.

And when the film does pay attention to the stuff of guns and bombs, it does so thoughtfully. One of this year’s most memorable big screen images, for me, was the sight of a storefront blown to pieces by a bombing, and of body parts strewn through the rubble that might be human or might just be the display-window mannequins.

And as I watched the film’s lead characters — typewriter-pounding screenwriters, applying themselves to their art even during air raids — I was moved by the assertion that artmaking is still worth doing even in such scenarios. Yes, these writers’ art is compromised by the studio system of filmmaking; the movie acknowledges this outright in ways that make us laugh and groan. But even this is a heartening revelation — such compromises can be worth it. Art, like life (thank you, Ian Malcolm), finds a way.

Also, Their Finest stars Bill Nighy as an egomaniacal actor with a heart of gold… or, perhaps, a heart that contains at least one vein of gold. Whatever — this movie pans for gold in his insufferably arrogant heart and finds some. Bill Nighy is a good reason to see any movie, right? (Okay, I’ll grant you that Love, Actually is an exception.)

I can’t promise that you’ll love this film: It’s braid of historical drama (which rarely transcends the scope and standards of BBC television dramas like Foyle’s War), feminist commentary, and romcom conventions are awkwardly entwined. And the narrative takes a hard turn late in its running time, one that was meant (I believe) to be heartbreaking, but it left me baffled and frustrated.

Still, I found these weaknesses easy to forgive for its subtler pleasures, the chemistry of the cast, and the unusual reflections on the nature of art and its value even in commercially compromised conditions. If you’re a fan of that other Dunkirk, you probably aren’t the target audience for this movie, but when your ears stop ringing from the typical Christopher Nolan Sound and Fury, I’d encourage you to try something quieter, more modest, and, for my money, more rewarding.