The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Based on the bestselling 2008 novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society stars Lily James as Juliet Ashton, a free-spirited young woman in immediate post-war London who seems to have the world at her feet, thanks to her penning a bestselling book and finding love in the shape of her American fiancé, Mark Reynolds (Glen Powell). However, the experience of war has left Juliet with the inability to enjoy or appreciate her success, and this malaise has subsequently sapped her creativity, much to the consternation of her publisher and gay best friend, Sidney Stark, (Matthew Goode).
By a twist of fate, Juliet receives correspondence from Dawsey Adams, a humble Guernsey farmer played by Michiel Huisman, concerning the story of how the eponymous book club came into being during the German occupation of the Channel Islands. Returning home after curfew following an illicit feast, four plucky islanders (Huisman, Jessica Brown Findlay, Katherine Parkinson, Penelope Wilton and Tom Courtenay) managed to avoid arrest by claiming their party was an authorised one, dedicated to literature and the humble, homemade potato peel pie. From that moment, an unexpected and no less welcome love affair with books developed and it now helps to reignite Juliet’s own biblophilia. Touched by their story of courageous resistance and extreme hardship, she feels compelled to pay the literary circle a visit. Once on Guernsey, however, her eyes are further opened – not only to the traumatising experiences that the islanders endured in the recent past, but also to the possibilities of her own future.
I haven’t read the original novel but I’m told that the screenplay (which is the work of three scriptwriters; two Americans, Don Roos and Tom Bezucha, and an Englishman, Kevin Hood) dispenses with both its epistolary conceit and some of its characters, presumably to convey the story in a more filmic and accessible manner. As such, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, or TGLAPPPS, as no one is calling it but which I will do henceforth for convenience’s sake, is a highly polished ‘heritage’ production from Four Weddings and a Funeral director Mike Newell. It is a film that feels both cosily familiar -calling to mind the recent WWII period films Their Finest and Another Mother’s Son, along with a suitable dash of 1987’s 84 Charing Cross Road for good measure – and perfect for Sunday evening viewing. This last factor is no doubt helped by the casting of several alumni from ITV’s internationally successful period drama Downton Abbey.
Holding the whole thing together is Lily James in the lead role of Juliet. Unfortunately, despite James being a veritable ray of sunshine and a capable, perky performer in her own right, I’m afraid I was never wholly convinced by her here; neither in her dissatisfaction and the eventual rediscovery of her literary mojo, nor by her standing as a popular author, to begin with. I’ve seen some criticism levelled at the fact that James appears simply too young to convince, but for me, it’s less a case of her age and more a case of her lacking any kind of quirk that the character seems to be crying out for. In its favour, the film makes a point of how the fame and adulation she receives for her creation of a Churchillian, beer-swilling comedic hero sits awkwardly with her because it isn’t really what she ever envisioned herself as writing, and this is really just as well, as one cannot imagine James writing anything like that in a million years. It isn’t the only failing either as much of the film’s narrative stems from Juliet’s fascination with the story of the society and her subsequent search for one of its missing members, but quite why she undertakes this seems little more than a case of sheer nosiness on her part rather than her author’s desire to see a story unfold. There’s also a moment in the film that points towards the heartache she carries from a bereavement she suffered in the blitz which is presumably the root of her unhappiness, her creative drought and her inability to move forward, but the film does little to capitalise on this and it’s all but forgotten about very early on to frustrating effect. James – and the film itself – is on surer ground with the romantic subplot that sees her torn between the flash American she has hastily agreed to marry (and been gifted the most humongous engagement ring as a result!) and the sensitive and decent Dawsey. In the latter role, Huisman convinces as an honest man, despite perhaps being the least realistic pig farmer in history, and it is easy to see who really deserves our heroine’s heart.
If there doesn’t seem to be enough eccentricity in the central role as played by James, then it is at least made up for elsewhere in the cast. Katherine Parkinson stars as Isola, the Brontë loving spinster of the parish and purveyor of herbal remedies and eye-watering gin, and reminds us that she remains the most criminally overlooked talent from The IT Crowd. Tom Courtenay portrays Ebin, the elderly postmaster and ‘needs must’ creator of the unpalatable pie of the title, and conveys so much of the island’s collective heartache with just a look – most notably in one of the film’s most affecting scenes, which sees him having to bid farewell to his grandson (Kit Connor) as he’s evacuated from Guernsey with all the other children. Elsewhere, Penelope Wilton delivers her usual forthright and somewhat passive aggressive mother hen turn as Amelia, whilst Jessica Brown Findlay brings an effectively quiet determination to the role of Elizabeth McKenna – a character whose lack of screen time belies her importance to the film. On the periphery of it all is Matthew Goode as the cliche of all romantic comedy-dramas, the ‘Gay Best Friend’. Unfortunately, despite Goode’s likeability, little is added here to lift it above such a stereotype, but it’s worth pointing out that the ensemble Newell forms here reminds us of his knack for casting a good supporting cast.
Ultimately, TGLAPPPS is the kind of film that engages incredibly well with is target demographic, the coveted ‘grey pound’ audience, but its fair to say that others may find its twee period drama styling, its lack of successful humour and its lengthy running time something of a turn-off. That said, it is beautiful to look at and possesses many illuminating and well crafted emotionally heartfelt scenes that befit the importance of the story it wants to tell – the story of the Channel Islands occupation, one which is still an all too often an overlooked chapter in British WWII history. For my money, it’s not as good as that other home front drama, Their Finest, but it does surpass Another Mother’s Son. TGLAPPPS is a pleasant, bittersweet film that passes a couple of hours in a nicely entertaining fashion and is a must for all fans of period drama.