The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)
Sure, its title might be a bit of a mouthful, but this snug, Sunday-evening drama is very easy to digest. Part detective tale, part city-versus-country love-triangle, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a bittersweet story of courage, friendship and loyalty, this old-fashioned British tearjerker tailor-made to warm hearts. Based on the bestselling 2008 novel of the same name, written by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows, the movie centers around writer Juliet Ashton (played here by Downton Abbey’s Lily James), who forms a surprising bond with a peculiar group of residents when visiting Guernsey, one of the small islands between France and England, which was occupied by the Nazis during World War II.
Opening late one night during the Nazi Occupation in Europe, the flick kicks-off in 1941 on the isle of Guernsey, where four friends, Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay), Eben Ramsey (Tom Courtenay), Isola Pribby (Katherine Parkinson) and Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), are wandering along a country trail, following a night of good food and laughter. You see, after months of having to live in hunger and fear, the foursome have just spent an evening together at the home of another companion, Amelia Maugery (Penelope Wilton), where they’d feasted on a pig she’d been hiding from the invaders, who’d confiscated all of the townsfolk’s livestock to feed their troops.
Being a little drunk and disorderly, the group are stopped by the Krauts for breaching curfew. When asked for their reasons, the quick-thinking Elizabeth notices a book in one of the men’s the pockets and says that they were at a book club, the quartet collectively coming up with the quirky title the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, namely after a gnarly dish Eben had whipped-up that evening. Although their society wasn’t on the Nazi’s list of approved groups, the soldiers allow the folks safe passage back to their houses, so long as they register their oddly named clique in the morning. And thus, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is born, the islanders using the group as an opportunity to meet up on a regular basis to discuss whatever books they can get their hands on, the writing whisking them away from their bleak and miserable existence.
Flash forward to London 1946, a year after the culmination of the war, where we meet the free-spirited Juliet (Lily James), an esteemed journalist and writer whose first book (a critical biography of Anne Brontë) was a flop. Much to her amazement, however, her follow-up (a collection of light humorous wartime stories she’d written under the male pseudonym of Izzy Bickerstaff) was a sizable hit — even though she’s not exactly fond of the work. Nevertheless, Juliet and her friend/ publisher Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode) are in the midst of a cross-country tour across Europe, promoting said book, the pair having become close after Juliet’s parents were killed during the Blitz.
Tired of the frivolous Izzy and his silly stories, Juliet feels the urge to write again, but this time in her own voice, the agitated author struggling to find inspiration. When she’s not in front of a typewriter, Juliet is spending time with her American boyfriend Mark Reynolds (a dashing Glen Powell), the couple looking to marry and buy the perfect home together. Each new estate, though, reminds Juliet of the traumatic death of her parents, when her old home was hit by the Germans. Things get disrupted when Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey, a stranger from Guernsey who’d come into possession of her copy of Essays of Elia and wants to know where he can find a bookshop in England to buy another book from the same author, Charles Lamb. As a correspondence begins between the pair, Juliet learns of the titular Society and makes an impulsive decision to visit the island, much to the dismay of Mark and her publisher Sidney.
Once on the isle, Juliet amalgamates herself with the pig farmer Dawsey and the rest of the Society’s members, making friends with the lonesome gin-maker Isola (Katherine Parkinson giving a solid performance) whilst struggling to be accepted by the guarded Amelia, whose home she’s in when she first meets the cluster. But, the more embedded she becomes within the Society, the more at odds she feels about the unexplained absence of its founder Elizabeth, who’s left behind a daughter named Kit (Florence Keen), the Society afraid of speaking about Jessica Brown Findlay’s missing Elizabeth.
From here on in the film plays like a light Agatha Christie novel, switching between flashbacks and Juliet’s present day, our heroine trying to uncover the truth behind Elizabeth’s unexplained disappearance. Problem is, neither the central mystery nor the investigation are particularly ‘theatrical,’ the enquiry mainly consisting of Juliet asking various members of the club the same questions (over and over) ‘til she gets an honest answer, Juliet relegating all of the dirty work to her boyfriend Mark who’s over in the armed forces. What’s more, the final revelation isn’t anything overly surprising or shocking; it’s the type of thing one’s likely to share over an afternoon brunch.
Fortunately, the script, written by Kevin Hood, A Royal Night Out (2015), Don Roos, Marley & Me (2008), and Thomas Bezucha, The Family Stone (2005), is light and breezy, and nowhere near as heavy as other WW2 dramas, making this one ideal viewing for a lazy stay-at-home matinée — I can see why Netflix has acquired the rights for U.S. distribution. Given that the novel (on which the film is based) is composed solely of letters, the screenwriters have also done an admirable job in translating the material to screen, the film even containing half a dozen letters to retain a sense of the book’s back-and-forth structure.
Directed by 74-year-old Mike Newell, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society unfolds at a leisurely pace, the story exploring ideas of love vs. infatuation, as well as the power or words and the effects of war. It helps that leading man Michiel Huisman, The Age of Adaline (2015), has a strong physical presence as Dawsey Adams and shares a solid rapport with his co-star James. Also worthy of note are Matthew Goode, Stoker (2013), playing Juliet’s refined gay agent Sidney Stark, and Tom Courtenay, 45 Years (2015), who portrays elderly postmaster Eben Ramsey, who runs the local post shop with his grandson Eli (Kit Connor). Lastly, look out for Irish singer Bronagh Gallagher, Tristan + Isolde (2006), who pops up as Charlotte Stimple, a disapproving landlady that uses the world’s most hopeful book (the Bible) to demean and condemn others.
Shot in Devonshire and Cornwall, England, as opposed to Guernsey, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society sports a wonderful production design by James Merifield, Final Portrait (2017), which recreates the ’40s post-war era, while the sharp period costumes by Charlotte Walter, Their Finest (2016), add to the overall authenticity of the piece, the sunlit fields and coastal landscapes really transporting viewers to the picturesque terrain in the middle of the English Channel.
As British as a warm cup of tea, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society offers patrons little more than a cozy feeling once the curtain raises, but, hey, it’s a pleasant way to pass the time. Be sure to stick around during the end credits if you want to see some of the Society’s high-spirited book club shenanigans.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is released through Studio Canal Australia