UK Release Date: 20th April 2018
Runtime: 124 minutes
Director: Mike Newell
Writer: Don Roos, Tom Bezucha
Starring: Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Penelope Wilton, Katherine Parkinson, Jessica Brown Findlay, Tom Courtenay, Matthew Goode, Glen Powell
Synopsis: Just after the Second World War, a London-based writer travels to Guernsey in order to meet a secretive book club formed in order to hide from Nazi occupiers a few years earlier.
There’s nothing wrong with a gentle movie. Indeed, a central part of the multiplex model nowadays is the midweek morning screenings of movies aimed squarely at what is often dubbed the ‘grey pound’. These are films for the Downton Abbey crowd, who accompany their cinema visits with a milky cup of tea and a couple of custard cream biscuits. There have been fewer films as tailor-made for that audience as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which, off-putting title aside, sounds as pleasingly quaint as you’d expect from a movie that features no fewer than four Downton cast members in key roles.
In the director’s chair is Mike Newell, best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral and the fourth Harry Potter movie. His adaptation of the 2008 novel from which the film takes its cumbersome title is a languorous affair that lands on the wrong side of a two-hour running time and, as a result, has all of the pace and urgency of a zimmer frame sprint. The story is set in 1946 and follows London-based writer Juliet (Lily James) who, tired of writing light-hearted columns about life during the war, travels to the island of Guernsey after a chance piece of correspondence leads her to farmer Dawsey (Michiel Huisman) and the eponymous society, formed to hide contraband from the occupying Nazis.
There’s a breezy feel to the opening of Guernsey, in which James repeatedly spars with her publisher (Matthew Goode) over her plans to take a journey to the island, against the wishes of her dashing American fiancé (Glen Powell). Unfortunately, she’s a miserable character, unsatisfied with the fact she’s a successful comedic writer in a happy relationship with a man who, by all appearances, seems to be a top fella. When she states, early on, that she feels she has “emerged from a long, dark tunnel into a carnival”, it’s as if she resents the fact people are happy at not having the fear of a bomb dropping on their head as they go to pick up the meagre food their ration books allow.
The only thing that seems to excite Juliet is Guernsey, played in the movie by various locations on the south coast of mainland Britain due to logistical constraints. The locations look beautiful, but the story within is hollow and empty, attempting to create mystery around the whereabouts of the society’s founder (Jessica Brown Findlay). A great deal of screen time is dedicated to this, but it merely nabs time that would have been better devoted to deepening the friendship between Juliet and lonely islander Isola, played with surprising pathos by The IT Crowd actress Katherine Parkinson. This friendship is certainly more believable than the one between Juliet and Dawsey, which is steadfastly platonic until the plot demands otherwise.
There’s simply nothing to quicken the pulse or raise so much as a smile in the entirety of this movie. It tries to take on difficult, troubling subject matter by virtue of its postwar setting, but is scuppered by the quaint, tea towel feel of its tone. By the time James breathlessly intoned “it’s so compelling” down the phone to Goode as she recounted the story of the islanders, I almost scoffed in derision. The most compelling thing about Guernsey was the rumble of the walls from the IMAX screening of Rampage next door.
Pop or Poop?
It’s rare that a film can lose an audience’s interest before they have even got to the end of its title, but that’s the trick pulled off by The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is gentle to the point of soporific. Lily James makes for an irritating protagonist and a handful of nice supporting performances are not enough to rescue the story.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.