Writer Juliet Ashton, most famous for her humorous wartime essays written under the name Izzy Bickerstaff, is on a gruelling tour to promote the collection. However, one day she receives a letter from a man from Guernsey, Dawsey Adams, who wants to know more of another pseudonym Ashton wrote under, Charles Lamb, divulging that her book helped a group of Guernsey locals when they formed a literary society under Nazi occupation. Intrigued by Dawsey’s tale and because her publisher agreed for her to write a Times article, Juliet heads to Guernsey to find out more about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
The trailers proudly proclaim that this is from the same producers as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), and those who remember that film of a bunch of ageing British thespians romping about India with a mix of emotional sentimentality and light humour will experience more of the same from this film with a longer title.
I think it is probably closer to Their Finest (2016), not only because it is a female-focused World War Two picture based around the creation of a piece of art, but because it looks remarkably similar. Set in an idyllic rural Britain, this time Guernsey instead of the Dover coast, it has a warmness to the cinematography that, I supposed, would be comforting.
However, while Their Finest is a charming if rather saccharine tale with interesting characters and a compelling central romance, thanks to great and developed secondary characters, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society feels empty, cynical and twee. We have a cast of talented people involved inf ront and behind the camera on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Mike Newell, the director, has helmed the fourth Harry Potter Film as well as Donnie Brasco (1997) and Pushing Tin (1999). In the cast we have Tom Courtenay from Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), The IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson, two Downton Abbey Alums, Lily James and Jessica Brown Findlay, as well as a member of the Game of Thrones cast, Michiel Huisman. Yet despite the amount of talent that is on the IMDb page, the film feels amateurish, as though everyone is going through the motions to get a paycheck.
This is mainly due to the slightly backwards story. There is a melodramatic presentation of the film’s central “mystery” (the sort of mystery that you can guess almost straight off) that unfolds slowly between loving vistas of Guernsey (convincingly played by Devon and Cornwall) as desired by some tourism board. Juliet Ashton (Lily James) invites herself into the lives of the society without really thinking and blunders around trying to discover what really happened to the group’s founder, Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay). We see brief flashes of the book group’s struggles and comradery in the face of the occupation, but we are removed from it thanks to the fact that the really interesting bits are purely in flash back being told to someone who did not experience it, but who will write it down.
The film deals with some heavy stuff, like the actual occupation of British territory, a fact that is left out of other World War Two films. Yet there is no real danger, thanks to the modicum of comedy in the film and the structure of flashback. We mainly just follow Juliet, played by Lily James, go through the film looking for an escape from an engagement that she shows no sign that she was dissatisfied with until the script says she’s dissatisfied. The really interesting stuff happens in brief asides as Elizabeth fights against the Nazis secretly with books and cooked pig, but finds one that seems alright (though that plot point feels incredibly odd, especially seeing as what the now president of the United States has said about Nazis and how the film presents other Nazis).
Then we have concentration camp slaves building gun turrets, a prison rescue, and at the core a group of people trying to maintain some degree of freedom through their book club. Lily James just feels surplus to requirements as do her own stuggles as they just feel mundane and not as important as people still suffering the trauma of occupation. Matthew Goode, however, is not, he is fantastic, biting and engaging as Juliet’s publisher.
I suppose even the investigation aspect of the film would have been interesting if any of the cast (apart from Matthew Goode) were giving great performances. Lily James looks lost wandering though idyllic English vistas looking sort of longingly at our male lead Dawsey. Her character doesn’t really seem to do anything of note. None of the characters do; Katherine Parkinson, who is a fantastic comic actor, as the kooky Isola Pribby does have some of the funny lines, but instead of being natural and human Isola feels forced and unreal, but outside her function in the film as ditsy folk remedy maker and fortune teller, Isola and Eben, like Juliet feel sidelined and pointless. Penelope Wilton tries her damndest to turn in an emotional performance as mother to a daughter killed in the bombing and the wife of a husband killed in World War One, but because we do not know her nor have had the time to connect with her, the weight of her sorrow feels targetted rather than earned.
Really the best thing you can say about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is that it is nice. It is a nice film about an unthreatening, unchallenging part of our nation’s history that doesn’t need to be explored in great depth; it has a nice love story and ohh the setting is so nice. I am of course being sarcastic. The Guernsey and Potato Peel Pie Society feels like it has missed the point of itself, telling a Russian nesting doll narrative that is needless complicated with needless characters and needlessly scenes of green and pleasant lands. It feels obviously designed to appeal to an audience that will remember the period of their youth and those who want to maybe visit Guernsey, even if the film wasn’t even filmed in Guernsey
You can watch The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in cinemas now