The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Posted: May 3, 2018 in Film reviews
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Directed by: Mike Newell. Starring: Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Katherine Parkinson, Matthew Goode, Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton.

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“Down it! down it! Down it!”

It’s 1946 and the war is over. Juliet Ashton (James) is an author who’s found success writing amusing tales under the pseudonym of Izzy Bickerstaff, but she yearns to write something with more substance. When she’s contacted by a pig farmer on Guernsey named Dawsey Adams (Huisman) she thinks she’s found the story she’s been looking for. Adams found her name and address in a book he liberated from a bookstore after he and a group of friends were forced to invent a book club to cover up for the fact that they were out after curfew.

Ashton is intrigued by the story of the society, and how they kept their morale up under German occupation by reading, and she persuades her long-suffering agent, and friend, Sidney Starke (Goode) to let her take a trip to the Channel Islands, but before she can leave her American boyfriend Mark (Glen Powell) proposes, and Juliet accepts.

On the island Juliet finds that the members of the society are not all pleased to see her, in particular Amelia (Wilton). She also discovers that the founder of the society, Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay (is mysteriously absent, leaving her young daughter Kit living with Dawsey, who Kit calls daddy. Fascinated by the mystery Juliet remains on Guernsey and becomes fast friends with the society members, in particular Isola (Parkinson) and Dawsey, but can she learn the secret of what really happened to Elizabeth during the occupation?

 

Few films have a title that’s as much of a mouthful as this one, but the film does at least hang a lantern on this by having a character refer to it as a bit of a mouthful. If it seems a whimsical title then fair warning, it’s kinda a whimsical film, and whilst not unenjoyable, it’s never as good as it should be given the experience of its director, its subject matter, and the talent of its cast.

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Part of the problem is down to a script that’s so on the nose at times as to be painful. As an example there’s a scene early on where Juliet has a flashback to her bomb damaged flat. We see her clutching a photo of herself with an older couple, and then see her terrified that a paperweight might fall and be destroyed. You’d think the meaning of this would be obvious, but apparently not because Juliet then exclaims “Father’s paperweight” which is the sort of expositional dialogue real people just don’t utter. Again and again Juliet verbalises her thoughts in this way and I found it jarring.

I’m not really the target audience for this film of course, and though it’s predictable that isn’t always a bad thing in itself, but given the subject matter it’s a shame the film didn’t take a few more risks. The occupation of the channel islands was a harsh time for those who lived there, but whilst the film does veer towards these darker elements at times—collaboration, slave labour, starvation—such detours are short lived, as if the film makers didn’t want to distract from the quaintness of the film, and too often it feels like the occupation was just an excuse for some jolly japes.

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It isn’t all bad. It looks gorgeous (even though not filmed in Guernsey) and the period detail is spot on. And whilst the script may offer no surprises, it’s hard not to be charmed by the easy chemistry of the talented cast (four of whom were in Downton!). James’ jolly hockey sticks demeanour annoys on occasion but on the whole she’s a solid lead, and Game of Throne alumnus Huisman similarly does the best he can in a sub-Heathcliffe role. Wilton proves yet again (if proof were needed) what a fine actress she is, and Powell does his very best to imbue Mark with enough pathos that we feel more than a little sorry for him. Courtenay is very amusing, but the standout is Parkinson who gets some of the best lines, and made me laugh out loud more than once.

For a film this lightweight the two-hour runtime feels a trifle excessive, but damn if the cast aren’t so good that I almost didn’t mind.

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