Film Review: ‘Their Finest’

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In the mid-1980s, graphic novelist Alison Bechdel came up with a simple question to assess the level of sexism in a film. It is known appropriately as the Bechdel test. Here’s the question: Does this film feature at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man?

In 'Their Finest’, directed by Lone Scherfig, a Welsh copywriter by the name of Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) ponders the same question, but it’s 1940 and women’s dialogue is referred to as ‘slop’. However, the Ministry of Information’s Film Division, headed by a pompously majestic Jeremy Irons, realises it’s necessary to engage a largely female wartime audience. As a result, Mrs Cole is enlisted to provide the ‘feminine perspective’.

Based on Lissa Evans' novel, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, this film is a charming and ultimately moving story about British filmmaking during the Blitz. It’s a time of sweeping social change when women are keeping the home fires burning and some of them have no intention of being ‘put back into their box’ when the War is over.

This is also a film about making a film – under the constraints set by the Ministry of Information’s Film Division, which require that the storyline be ‘authentic and positive’ in order to boost public morale at a time when Britain’s fate seems increasingly bleak. The British Expeditionary Force has just been evacuated from Dunkirk, France has fallen, Britain is besieged by German air raids and America is pursuing a policy of neutrality.

There’s a stellar British cast led by a beguiling Gemma Arterton and a deglamourised Sam Claflin as the lead writer, together with the aforesaid Jeremy Irons in a cameo which gives him a chance to declaim the rousing St Crispin’s Day speech from 'Henry V'. Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard steals the show in his role as a self-absorbed sixty-something former leading man who is now offered only minor roles. It’s a part which allows him to overact to his heart’s content and even break into song.

With the approval of the Ministry of Information, the writers, Tom Buckley and Mrs Cole, decide upon the true story of twin sisters who set out in their father’s boat in an attempt to cross the Channel and evacuate British soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk. But soon the writers find themselves required to include an American character for the US market and to alter their script in other ways to meet the demands of their masters. Until the very end, the movie is referred to as the ‘Dunkirk film’ but astute viewers will guess the eventual title from the start.

Being a big fan of British films of this era, I loved the references to actors and movies from the period but you don’t have to be familiar with them to enjoy the film.

There are fascinating insights into the writing process which will resonate with all you writers out there. When Mrs Cole delivers her rather lengthy script to Tom Buckley, he tells her to cut half of it. ‘Which half?’ she asks. The one you don’t need, he replies. A script, she is told, is ‘real life without the boring bits’.

In a nutshell, ‘Their Finest’ is a charming and bittersweet tribute to British filmmaking during the darkest days of World War II and the pivotal role of women on the home front.

Deborah O’Brien
16 April 2017

Book Review: ‘Lake Hill’
by Margareta Osborn

Lake Hill 

When Margareta Osborn’s new novel, ‘Lake Hill’ arrived in the post, I was busy planning a family wedding and finishing a manuscript of my own. Reluctantly I put the book aside, awaiting a time when I could read it at my leisure. Last weekend, with the wedding successfully over and my own book safely in my agent’s hands, I gleefully hunkered down by the fire, ready to escape into Margareta’s latest rural romance.

The beguiling cover sets the mood, while the vivid descriptions of glistening lakes, lush pastures and big skies will transport you to Gippsland, a place so lovingly described in all of Margareta’s novels that it verges on being a character in its own right rather than a mere backdrop.

But there’s much more to ‘Lake Hill’ than the scenery – this is a novel that straddles genres, encompassing romantic elements but also some seriously dark issues as well as a good dose of mystery and suspense.

Two decades ago, teenagers, Julia Gunn and Rick Halloran, went their separate ways after a fleeting summer romance. Now in her thirties and recently widowed, Julia has decided to start a new life running a café at Lakes Entrance. On her way to the coast, a rockslide damages her car and she finds herself marooned in the mountain village of Lake Grace. After hitching a lift into town, she has no option but to stay at the local pub until the car is fixed. And guess who owns the pub? None other than Rick Halloran, who’s now a celebrity, thanks to his famous mother and his own success as a sculptor.

Reunion stories offer unique possibilities for creating dramatic tension. That’s because the two protagonists will bring a heap of emotional baggage to the reunion – their shared back story and the lives they’ve led independently in the time they’ve been apart. And if one or both has been carrying a torch for the other, well, that makes the reunion even more poignant and emotionally charged.

When Rick walks into the bar of the Lake Grace pub, Julia recognises him right away, and old memories come flooding back. For his part, Rick takes a considerable time to realise that the attractive woman with the fancy (albeit damaged) car is actually the shy bookish girl from his past. And when he does work it out, he’s not exactly happy to see her. In fact, he’s just plain surly.

What really happened all those years ago? Why did they go their separate ways? What has happened to each of them in the intervening time? And will the spark they felt as teenagers still be simmering twenty years later? The answers to those questions make for a meaty page-turner.

The dialogue is snappy, the characters nuanced, and the descriptive passages evocative. But what really grabbed me were the ‘knock-you-for-six’ twists. I can usually sense a plot twist coming chapters away, but not this time.

In a nutshell, ‘Lake Hill’ brings us a gripping and bittersweet story of second chances and lost opportunities. And if you’re the kind of reader who enjoys a blend of romance and mystery set against a bucolic backdrop, this novel could be the perfect addition to your reading list this winter.


Margareta’s website: http://margaretaosborn.com.au/

Buying details: https://penguin.com.au/authors/49-margareta-osborn

Deborah O’Brien

26 June, 2017


Home in the Highlands



Finding the Dream Home

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Illustration: Deborah O'Brien 

For years I’ve dreamt about living in the Southern Highlands of NSW, but I never actually believed the dream would come true. It was just a fantasy, fed by rest-stops in Bowral and Berrima on trips back and forth to our country hideaway in the Tablelands. Then I discovered 'Highlife' magazine with its glossy real estate ads depicting grand mansions and enchanting country cottages. As I leafed through the pages, I would allow myself the guilty pleasure of imagining what it might be like to live in this magical world of English hedgerows, ridiculously green fields and quaint little villages. But it’s a long way between imagining and reality. 

Last winter we were driving back to Sydney from the Tablelands when WGH* made a comment about looking for a place closer to home. Somewhere about an hour and a half from Sydney. A place our friends and family could easily visit in a day.

That night I started up my laptop and began exploring the Highlands online. Very soon, I was searching the real estate listings every day - Bowral, Mittagong, Moss Vale, Exeter, Bundanoon, Burrawang and Robertson.

It was weeks before we started looking in person, and it quickly became a regular Saturday excursion down the Hume Highway. Over the winter we inspected many properties, accumulating a pile of glossy brochures to prove it. For me, there were two essentials: a wraparound verandah and a rambling cottage garden, or the potential to create one. For WGH, the ‘must-have’ feature was a barn where he could do his woodworking, or the space to build one.

But we never seemed to find all of those elements in the one property and at the right price. As time passed, I began to wonder whether we would ever find our perfect match.

They say that true love happens when you least expect it. In our case, it presented itself one weekday morning when I was on the point of giving up the search. Out of habit I opened Domain and browsed through the listings. All of a sudden, there it was on the screen – the Dream House, complete with wide verandahs and almost an acre of grounds. It was perfect, except for the word ‘Auction’ below the photo.

My experience of auctions has been traumatic, to say the least. Two auctions, two disasters. The first involved our house being passed in a hundred thousand dollars below the reserve. The second, which took place more than a decade later, was equally bad in that only one bidder turned up. After that, I made a vow never to be involved in an auction again, either as a vendor or a purchaser.

Despite my vow, I convinced myself it wouldn’t hurt to turn up at the next ‘open for inspection’. Out of curiosity. Not as a serious prospect. Just as a comparable. That Saturday we arrived at the allotted time and parked outside. I knew the minute I walked through the gates and up the white gravel drive. 

After we’d looked around for a while, the real estate agent appeared with her clipboard and asked me what I thought of the property.

‘I love it!’ I replied like a besotted teenager.

‘So we’ll see you at the auction then,’ she said with a smile.

‘I don’t do auctions,’ was my reply. ‘Too stressful. Not for you perhaps, but for the buyers and sellers.’

‘Oh, auctions can be stressful for us too,’ she said. ‘If they happen to go pear-shaped.’

‘Well, I’m sorry, but I won’t be there,’ I said with a sad sense of finality.

And I was true to my word.

On the Monday morning after the auction, I couldn't help checking to see what price the house had sold for. Instead of the words ‘SOLD’, I saw:


OMG, the auction had gone pear-shaped. The house had been passed in and here it was back up for sale!

In the interests of not appearing too eager, we waited a few days. Then we made an offer which was duly accepted. Eight weeks later we moved into White Gables and the dream became a reality.


WG Roses in bloom Medium


*WGH = World’s Greatest Husband – it says so on his coffee mug.

Deborah O'Brien, February 24, 2018

Read more about Life at White Gables here:

Home in the Highlands: The Secret Garden 


Home in the Highlands




The Secret Garden

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When I was a little girl, I read Frances Hodgson Burnett's 'The Secret Garden' and dreamed of having one of my own. In December of 2017, that dream came true. Much like the garden in the classic children's book, my secret garden is hidden away behind a stone wall and overgrown after years of neglect. 

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Molly ponders the secrets lurking in the undergrowth. 

I can’t tell you how excited I was about the prospect of restoring this garden, but I was daunted too. What intimidated me most were the blackberry vines which had taken over like triffids, smothering plants and tearing at my skin whenever I ventured beyond the perimeter. Although garden gloves helped a little, what I really needed were those elbow-length leather gauntlets worn by falconers. Suffice it to say that removing the blackberries was a long and thorny process involving a lot of Betadine.

The many briar roses proved to be as dangerous as the blackberry vines. Even though it was summer, I took to them with secateurs and administered a heavy pruning to the old woody branches. All the while, I begged them, ‘Stop stabbing me – I’m only trying to help you.’ 

Once the blackberries were eradicated, there were other pests to deal with – rampant wisteria and jasmine, both of which had been allowed to grow out of control. After cutting everything back as far as I could, I poured boiling water over the remaining shoots. (I don’t use chemicals.) In the months since then, new wisteria and jasmine shoots have appeared and I’ve hit them once again with boiling water. Although they wilted and turned brown, I suspect it will take many more applications to eliminate them for good. 

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St Francis guarding the creatures living in the Secret Garden


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 Wormwood and French lavender line the pathway to the Secret Garden.

One day, I was peering into the shrubbery and spotted something terracotta perched high among the branches. In order to get a closer look, I started cutting wood away until I could see a large terracotta saucer on top of a wooden post. It was a bird feeder! And twining around the post was a Cécile Bruner rose.


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More discoveries awaited. A stone water feature. An old swinging garden chair (now moved to the safety of the front verandah). A collection of wonderful plants and shrubs: escallonia, rhododendrons, rondeletia, azaleas, camellias, geraniums, roses and innumerable lavender bushes, the latter desperately in need of a trim. Released from the burden of blackberries and other vines, they are thriving in their newfound freedom.


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We discovered this old jarrah swinging seat abandoned in the garden, covered in moss and lichen. It's now been gurneyed and moved to a safer place (the covered verandah) where it awaits restoration. In the meantime, I couldn't help dressing it up with a few scatter cushions!


This autumn, something very special happened in the Secret Garden. Sweet little forget-me-nots began to pop up everywhere. A gardening friend warned me that the seeds would stick to my dogs’ fur and I should remove the plants ASAP. ‘Thanks for the heads-up,' I replied, 'but the forget-me-nots are staying.'

I’m certain there will be surprises ahead. Already, bulbs are pushing their way out of the ground. At this stage I can only guess what they might be. Daffodils? Jonquils? Hyacinths? Snowdrops? I’ll just have to wait and see!


Deborah O’Brien 19 April, 2018

Read more about Life at White Gables - Finding the Dream Home