2018 Film Reviews: The Guernesy Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Monday 23 April 2018

Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY. Starring: Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Glen Powell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton, Katherine Parkinson, and Tom Courtenay. Directed by Mike Newell. Rated M (Mature themes). 123 min.

This British drama is based on the 2008 novel of the same name written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It is the story of a free spirited, woman journalist-novelist, Juliet Ashton, who lived in London and came to bond with the residents of the Guernsey Island, off the coast of Normandy, after World War II. The novel was a New York Times best selling book, and the movie follows what happened after the German occupation of the Channel Islands in the early 1940s.

The Chanel Islands were the only British territory to be occupied by the Third Reich, and at the time, there were some 21,000 terrified people living on the island. The film largely depicts an England when the country was in recovery mode from the horrors of war.

Following the war, correspondence occurred between Juliet Ashton (Lily James) and members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, that intrigued her. She wanted to understand more about members’ experiences of Guernsey when it was occupied by the Nazis.

Juliet was about to go on a promotional tour with her publisher, Sidney (Matthew Goode) for her latest book, when she received a letter from a farmer, Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), who lives in Guernsey, telling her how the Society became a refuge for the citizens of the island during the war. Dawsey found Juliet’s name in a second-hand copy of a book of essays by Charles Lamb.

Fascinated by how the club’s love of books helped them to survive, Juliet decides to reply to Dawsey, and during her visit she formed a deep attachment to those she came to write about, and to Dawsey Adams in particular. Juliet’s bond with the members of the Society become life-changing for her. Prior to knowing them, she shrugged off the human tragedy of war through escapist partying in London. Only after getting to know the Islanders, did she come to understand how the Society became a significant mechanism of escape from the tragedies of war. The Islanders were ‘starved for fellowship’, and the Society gave them ‘a private freedom’.

The idea of the Society itself first came to Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay) when she fabricated the club’s existence when a group of Islanders was confronted by a German patrol after curfew. Its formation was offered to the Germans as the reason why her friends had broken curfew, and the Nazis, not knowing how to cope with the information, allowed them to continue on their way. So as not to arouse suspicion, the Society was formed, and the club flourished. But tragedy later ensued.
The film has a rich ensemble of character actors. The direction of the movie by Mike Newell, is well paced and confident, and the film captures authentically the historical period it displays. It makes frequent use of brief, revealing flashbacks, and has wonderful scenic photography. Every image of Guernsey Island is storybook-picturesque.

As the movie develops, it shifts from a rich array of human observations, driven by the natural humour of the Islanders’ stories, to something darker. There are secrets to be revealed, and punishments that were delivered. The latter half focuses more pointedly than the first half on the inhumanity, and injustices of war, but both parts show the spirit that helped the British to survive. Actors and actresses like Tom Courtenay, Glen Powell, Katherine Parkinson, and Penelope Wilton create a rich array of eccentric characters that are very colourful.

The movie is caught a little between being an interesting historical piece, and a moving depiction of wartime survival, but it tells a story that is funny, engaging, and sad. In many ways, it is contrived, predictable, and too obviously romantic, but the total package is enjoyable. This is a film that has been designed to charm and draw viewers emotionally into it, and it does so.

Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
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