Film Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

This mouthful-titled historical drama comes from from Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ novel. It’s pleasingly played and quite moving, yet feels a bit safe and even schmaltzy, which is rather surprising given the darkness of the plot.

One of the latest in a string of movies that present an idealised, pre-Brexit view of Britain before, during and after World War 2 (Darkest Hour, Their Finest and so forth), this is notable for featuring a properly star-making performance by Lily James.

James’ author Juliet Ashton is introduced in 1946 London as the city starts to rebuild, and she’s doing a small tour to promote her latest book (which she’s penned, Miles-Franklin-like, under the pseudonym ‘Izzy Bickerstaff’) with help from pal and publisher Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode). Looking for inspiration and somewhat weighed down by what would now be diagnosed as PTSD, she learns of a community in Guernsey (in the English Channel) which held secret book club meetings during the Nazi occupation of the island. And yes, one of her books was a topic of discussion.

Travelling to the supposed spot (the production never actually filmed there) despite the concerns of her American fiancé Mark Reynolds (Glen Powell), she befriends the local bunch which includes Dawsey Adams (Michael Huisman), Isola Pribby (Katherine Parkinson), Amelia Maugery (Penelope Wilton) and postmaster Eben Ramsey (Tom Courtenay).

One member is missing though: Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay). Juliet’s search for the truth about Elizabeth’s whereabouts becomes a mystery that drives the narrative on for a while before it becomes pointless, as we can easily guess where she’s gone. Therefore we settle instead for a little study of the ethics of creativity (will Juliet betray the gang by writing about them?) and a dewy-eyed depiction of the deep and goofy love that grows between her and the rugged Dawsey.

Offering something of a Downton Abbey reunion, this is an ensemble piece with good work from the whole cast, some lovely locations with Cornwall and Devon filling in for Guernsey, appropriately nasty Nazis in the many flashbacks and sweet hand-wringing from Lily. Certainly beautiful, but also holding the whole thing together, she presents a luminous image of sheer British niceness that unfortunately never quite existed.

Rated M. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is in cinemas now.

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