Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Mike Newell
Stars: Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Tom Courtenay, Penelope Wilton, Matthew Goode, Glen Powell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Katherine Parkinson, Kit Connor, Bronagh Gallagher.
Adapted from the 2008 best selling novel written by Mary Ann Shaffer (who died before the novel was completed) and her niece Anne Barrows, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is a historical romance set in the aftermath of World War Two. This quintessential British drama centres around writer Juliet Ashton (played here by Downton Abbey’s Lily James), who forms an unexpected bond with a quirky group of residents on the island of Guernsey, which was occupied by the Nazis during the war.
The film opens in 1946, in a London that is still recovering from the ravages of war. Juliet has embarked on a book tour to promote her latest novel. She receives a letter from Dawsey Adams (Dutch actor Michiel Huisman, from tv series Game Of Thrones, etc), a pig farmer on the island of Guernsey that piques her interest. He has requested her help in finding an old book. A correspondence begins between Juliet and Dawsey in which she learns a little of the history of the German occupation, an important but forgotten chapter from the war.
Juliet has been looking for something meaningful to write about for her next novel. On impulse she heads off to Guernsey where she meets the quirky eccentric locals that comprise the titular society. She learns about the history of the group which was formed during the height of the German occupation, and in defiance of the Nazi occupying army. It has since grown into a tight knit group. Juliet learns a little about the personal history of the main characters.
But there is a deep secret and mystery that they also try to protect from Juliet’s curious probing. But her probing of the tragic history of Guernsey and the fate of the literary group’s founder Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay, from This Beautiful Fantastic, etc) proves to be a catharsis for many within the group. And Juliet’s experiences on Guernsey change her life as she makes new friends and finds romance.
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is a bittersweet story of courage, loyalty, romance, betrayal and mystery, and this somewhat old-fashioned tear jerker will certainly appeal to lovers of fine British drama. The novel was written as a series of letters constructed between the various characters, which presented a challenge to the filmmakers, especially screenwriters Don Roos (The Opposite Of Sex, etc), Kevin Hood (Becoming Jane, etc) and Tom Bezucha (The Family Stone, etc). The film version contains half a dozen letters, and the filmmakers refer to the letters, so there is enough in the film to remind audiences of the original structure. And some elements of the film may remind older audiences of the weepy 84 Charing Cross Road, in which two characters carried out a cross Atlantic romance via correspondence and a mutual love of books.
It has been directed by Mike Newell, best known for his work on the romantic comedy Four Weddings And A Funeral and Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. This is his first feature film in six years. The drama unfolds at a measured pace, but it is a little predictable. Newell, who replaced Kenneth Branagh who was originally attached to the project, has assembled a solid cast that includes stalwarts of British cinema in Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton, who bring their quirky characters to life.
James has an appealing presence and brings plenty of charm and warmth to her performance as Juliet. Huisman has a hunky and strong physical presence that suits his character. James and Huisman develop a good rapport. Matthew Goode plays Juliet’s stuffy gay agent Sidney Stark, but he is given little to do, while Glen Powell plays Mark Reynolds, her American fiancé.
Despite the film being set on Guernsey it was actually filmed in Devonshire, where the production team was able to find some suitably shabby locations that matched the Guernsey of the 1940s. There is some superb production design from James Merifield (Final Portrait, etc) that evocatively recreates the period, while Charlotte Walter’s 1940s style costumes reek of authenticity. The windswept coastal landscapes and beautiful countryside give the film a beautiful visual surface, courtesy of the cinematography from Zac Nicholson (the recent The Death Of Stalin, etc). Flashbacks to the war years which show the hardships of life under Nazi occupation give the material a darker edge.