This review contains some spoilers.
My wife and I sat down this week for a small-screen viewing of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which was recently released on DVD.
Admittedly, this genre wouldn’t normally be my cup of tea, but after only a little coercion from Christine (who very much does like films in this genre), we decided to try it.
Caffeine and apple pie at hand (didn’t fancy the potato peel version), we settled in.
Guernsey (the full title’s a bit of a mouthful, right?) is an historical-romantic drama directed by Mike Newell, starring Lily James in the lead role as Juliet Ashton, a successful novelist in the post-war era (very post-war, actually, as the film’s set in 1946). While promoting her latest book with publisher Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode), through whom she’s been contracted to write stories for The Times Literary Supplement about the benefits of literature, she is contacted by Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman, of Game of Thrones fame) about buying one of her novels.
Dawsey resides on Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, where he is part of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.” A prologue in the film reveals that the society was formed five years earlier during the German occupation when Dawsey and his friends make up the unusually-named book-reading group on the spot when stopped by the Nazis after breaking curfew. They’ve met every Friday night since and become firm friends.
After exchanging some letters with Dawsey, Juliet becomes fascinated by the Guernsey society and decides to travel to the island to meet with them – just to complicate things a bit more, her wealthy American boyfriend Mark Reynolds (Glenn Powell) proposes to her just as she’s getting on the ferry (sneaky move).
Shortly after arriving, Juliet meets the members of the society where she is treated as a great celebrity by the members: Amelia Maugery (Penelope Wilton), Isola Pribbey (Katherine Parkinson), Eben Ramsey (Tom Courtenay), and Eben’s young grandson, Eli (Kit Connor), as well as Dawsey Adams. The members tell Juliet that Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay), who founded the group that fateful night in 1941, is overseas.
The rest of the film plays out gradually as Juliet uncovers more and more of the society’s story, particularly the circumstances around the mysterious absence of Elizabeth, with whom Dawsey (apparently) has a little girl called Kit. As you might expect, there’s more to Guernsey society than meets the eye, and Juliet soon finds herself fully invested in all of them, especially Dawsey, with whom she quickly falls in love.
The things I liked
First up, the cast is great. Lily James’ star continues to rise, and she’s well-worth her leading role credit here, playing an intelligent, compassionate young woman who you can’t help rooting for throughout. Wilton is fantastic as the troubled Amelia, doing her best to steal every scene she’s in with her intensity and brokenness; Courtenay balances her nicely as the warm, pleasant Eden, and I was thrilled to see Parkinson put in a subtle performance as the damaged and lonely Isola (I’m a huge IT Crowd fan and it was great to see Parkinson stretch her acting muscles some more here).
Mike Newell’s direction is understated but effective. His wide, establishing shots of beautiful Guernsey made me want to hop on the next boat there, and his subtle use of tone and light works nicely in the back of your perception of the narrative – of course, it’s a historical drama so there was never going to be anything overly flashy about it. I felt the pace of the film carries you along gently as you follow Juliet’s story.
The things that could have been better
Michiel Huisman’s performance is understated as the reserved Dawsey, but I think he holds back a little too much. While there is definite chemistry between him and Juliet, I didn’t quite believe that she would fall for him in such a short time, even ditching her fiancé in the process (the poor lad didn’t deserve it).
While the film is never boring, it sometimes lacks a little bit of humour or zest in the writing. There was scope there somewhere to have a comic relief character to lighten things up a bit (within reason, of course, in a film with such sensitive subject material) and some of the characters deserved more development. I would have liked to have seen a bit more closure around Elizabeth, and the final act felt slightly rushed and formulaic. These are very minor gripes, though.
The bottom line
Guernsey is a pleasant viewing experience. It deals with the tough historical subject matter in a way that can be absorbed easily – this is a film that successfully balances a narrative featuring menacing Nazi occupation with picturesque island farm life, all carried by a strong lead in Lily James.
Even if you don’t normally go for films in this genre, give this one a go. It’s worth the watch, and you’ll certainly pick up a bit more wartime history knowledge along the way, as I did!
Verdict: (4 / 5)