The World-War II-set drama “Their Finest” is a terrifically charming tale crafted by a Danish director and a stable of British actors. Directed by Lone Scherfig and starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Clafin and Bill Nighy, the movie is about making a movie. But not just any movie -- a glossy propaganda picture to boost the morale of blitzed Brits during the dark days of 1940 when the shrill sound of air raid sirens rang daily.

But that’s not all Scherfig (“An Education”) has up her sleeve in adapting Lissa Evans’ novel, “Their Finest Hour and a Half.” How copywriter Catrin Cole (a radiant Arterton) becomes one of London’s top screenwriters is a story of female empowerment. She’s hired by Clafin’s chauvinistic Buckley from the Ministry of Information’s Film Division to write the “slop” -- the derogatory term male writers used for female dialogue. War rages outside but inside Catrin battles for things like equal pay (no such luck), a clean desk (she tidies it up herself) and pushes for the two female stars of the movie to be the heroes. “Girls don’t want to be the hero,” Buckley (“Hunger Games” heartthrob Clafin) declares. “They want to be had by the hero.” Almost 80 years after the events in the movie, that condescending mindset is still kicking around.

Working from a script by British TV scribe Gaby Chiappe, Scherfig is slick, not only in her social commentary but in how she gently pokes fun at the filmmaking of the day, when male directors maintain they are after “authenticity” and “optimism.” The scene-stealing Nighy (“Love, Actually”) brilliantly plays pretentious acting legend Ambrose Hilliard. He’s a diva who’s all about the “power of the dramatic arts.” Helen McCrory is his tough-as-nails agent. Jake Lacy is a no-talent American matinee idol who is cast in the propaganda flick to appeal to U.S. moviegoers. Why? Because England wants Americans to see all the fun they are missing by not entering the war.

“Their Finest” merits close attention because it’s chock full of nuance. The movie-within-the-movie is a mirror of the main narrative. Scherfig oscillates between “The Nancy Starling,” a Dunkirk-set story about two women on a boat and the happenings to Catrin. Characters talk about heroic deaths, mass destruction and romantic fulfillment, which is what Scherfig delivers doubly with a wink and a smile. Being this clever, however, has its downside. Scherfig often trips over her cuteness with jarring tonal shifts that threaten to blow up the whole movie. She’s mixing broad comedy, romance and intense war imagery. It doesn’t always ring true. But it’s all propped up by a group of fine actors that also includes Jeremy Irons, Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory, playing an ahead-of-her time lesbian who surmises: “The men are scared we won’t go back into our boxes when this is over.”

The movie might not be perfect, but a poised and assured Arterton (“Runner Runner”) shows she is a fine leading lady.

-- Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.

“Their Finest”
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy.
(R for some language and a scene of sexuality.)
Grade: B