Movie Review: ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’
Director: Mike Newell
Cast: Lily James as Juliet Ashton; Michiel Huisman as Dawsey Adams; Glen Powell as Mark Reynolds; Jessica Brown Findlay as Elizabeth McKenna; Matthew Goode as Sidney Stark; Katherine Parkinson as Isola Pribby; Tom Courtenay as Eben Ramsey; and Penelope Wilton as Amelia Maugery.
Plot: An author seeking a serious story forms unexpected friendships with the inhabitants of Guernsey when she decides to write about the German occupation of the island in World War II.
It’s 1941 and Guernsey Island – located in the English Channel – is under German occupation. The inhabitants have been ordered to grow potatoes after their farm animals were seized to feed German troops. It is in this context that we find ourselves accompanying a few daring islanders on their walk home after curfew, having hidden one last pig for a warm roast dinner shared between starving neighbours. German troops intercept them, and, in a panic, they create the excuse that they were at a book club – spontaneously named The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Fast forward to the end of the war and author Juliet Ashton (Lily James) is attempting to reconcile the new glib post-war London with the previous few years, referring to her life as a ‘carnival’ from which they have emerged into from the ‘dark tunnel’ that was the war. At nights she stays out late at extravagant parties, dancing and socialising with her soon-to-be American fiancée Mark Reynolds (Glen Powell). By day she attends a never-ending itinerary of book signings and talks, spending her spare minutes house-hunting with the assistance of her long-time friend and publisher Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode). It seems she cannot wish for anything more, yet she is restless, hunting for a serious story to write about.
Perfectly timed then, is a letter from Guernsey pig farmer Adam Dawsey (Michiel Huisman), in which he writes about the conception of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Juliet’s attention is immediately caught, and neither her fiancée or publisher can keep her from arranging to travel to Guernsey and meet with the book club. She hopes to write an article about its creation to publish in the London Times; however, after meeting with the book club’s members she is surprised to find them unwilling for their story to be printed. Even more peculiar, one of the book club’s founding members Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay) is missing, with no one in the town willing to disclose what happened to her or why she left a young daughter behind.
From here develops a typical romance-mystery film. Juliet’s time on Guernsey continues to increase, with many of the island residents questioning why she hasn’t left already. Eventually however, she establishes a connection with the members of the book club, and slowly begins to establish what happened in those years gone past. To counter her fixation on the island’s history and her blossoming friendship with Dawsey, her publisher and fiancée continue to contact her; acting as strings tugging her back to the ‘real world’. In this, the narrative sets up a classic country-vs-city dilemma for Juliet that echoes throughout the film to the very end.
This is altogether a decent film. It’s light-hearted and fun, with a good splash of humour to be found in the problem-solving and developing relationships. The backgrounds to the film are beautiful, with the steep cliffs and rolling hills of Guernsey balancing nicely against the formidable structures of London. Indeed, the people of the 1940s seem to come alive in this film, with costumes, hair and language making for a perfect combination. However, despite all this, it doesn’t feel like a serious film. Released in 2016 in the same genre of historical drama/romance, Their Finest Hour also explored the power of words in the final years of the war. However, after watching that film, you felt inspired to read, write, or simply appreciate the written word. For me, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society fails to do the same. To put it bluntly, the film feels almost preachy in the sense that it attempts to force an appreciation of books on the viewer. And in spite of the stunning scenery and spot-on character depiction, this film lacks the charisma and passion Their Finest Hour simply shone with.
In short, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a charming film ideal for any history or romance fan to view on a lazy afternoon. With an impressive line-up of actors and actresses with vast experience in acting in the historical/drama genre, it was undoubtedly going to be a good performance, and was indeed a pleasure to view. What is lacking is depth. Despite seeming to be an intricate web of stories brought together through the power of the written word and the trying circumstances of the War, the plot turns out to be relatively simplistic. This is not necessarily a negative characteristic for a film, but for one with a title as complex and promising as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, it was a little disheartening.
Score: 6.5 out of 10