Dir. Mike Newell
Starring: Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Matthew Goode, Jessica Brown Findlay, Katherine Parkinson, Glen Powell, Penelope Wilton, and Tom Courtenay
It may have one of the most off putting titles in cinema at the moment, but The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an unexpected delight. Based upon the novel of the same name, this is a fictional story based upon the real life occupation of Guernsey by the Nazis. Directors Mike Newell, best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the fourth Harry Potter film, puts together a familiar cast for anyone who has seen Downton Abbey, and mounts a handsome, quintessentially British film. You just have to look past that title.
The film follows Juliet Ashton, played by Lily James. A successful writer in Post-War London, about to embark on a book tour, and in a serious relationship with an American solider stationed in London. When she receives a letter from a book club in Guernsey, she feels an immediate attachment to the letter’s writer. His story of how the book club galvanised the group during Guernsey’s occupation by Nazis is so compelling she decides to visit the club to write an article about them. What she finds on the island is both a story and a mystery that has her digging into the book clubs past.
This is perhaps one of the most British films I have ever seen. There’s farm yards, London just after the blitz, pints of beer, gin, and plenty of tea. If this sounds too twee, don’t worry, because the story it’s attached to, and the way the film has been put together has more than enough charm. It’s a film that is gently moving, and manages to infuse themes of class and gender with great subtlety. When Lily James is asked why she decided to write under a mans name, she says it’s because that was the voice which best suited the story, but the delivery holds an underlying feminism. At its heart it’s almost a feminist love story, whilst also being a love letter to the written word, and the transformative powers of stories.
It’s a gorgeous looking movie too. There was an advert for Guernsey’s tourism board before the film, and the film does a great job of making you want to visit. What really holds it altogether though is the performances. Veterans such as Penelope Wilton, and Tom Courtenay do well, but it’s Lily James and Michiel Huisman who sparkle. James is fast becoming one of the great leading ladies, and she’s fantastic here. She may be in danger of being type cast in period pieces, but she is a mesmerising and charming screen presence.
Matthew Goode is also strong, though he isn’t required to stretch himself too much. The structure of the film is clever too, acting as both a mystery film, and an ode to the process of writing. James leads us through the narrative and it’s down to her that the film never drags, or overstays it’s welcome.
If the gentleness of the film is appealing, it’s perhaps the films biggest flaw as well. It’s a film that recounts some of the most heinous acts of the last century, but pulls its punches. We are told that slaves were used on the island and starved, but we don’t see it. It didn’t have to be a graphic film, but this is perhaps a bit to cosy. It’s the gentlest War movie that I’ve ever seen. It also brushes on some heavier themes, but never delves into them. The actors do great at portraying a lot more subtext, but it would have nice for the film to dive a little deeper into themes of guilt and loss. There’s also an annoying trait of telling and not showing. Lines of dialogue which weren’t needed, like when Lily James looks into a half bombed room and goes to rescue a paper weight. She says it’s her fathers paperweight, to no one in particular. This is just one example, but it happens a couple of times in the movie, and I think it may have been more affective to let the audience connect the dots themselves.
This is a charming, gorgeous movie, with some great performances. It does well to add subtext to what could have been a very twee, afternoon television film, but I would have liked it to have delved a little deeper into its themes. It’s a warm hug of a film which is part of its charm, but it could have benefitted from some sharper edges.