The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – movie review

by Russell Baillie / 25 April, 2018
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A tale of bookworms in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society makes for a safe film.

World War II hastened the arrival of the atomic bomb, the jet engine, the computer and that other fixture of modern life, the book club. Or so the bestselling novel on which this film is based suggested. It was set among a group of plucky bookworms on the Channel Island of the title who, after the German occupation, find a noted author is hoping to write about them.

The screen adaptation follows last year’s Another Mother’s Son, about another Islander who sheltered an escaped Russian POW. An escapee figures briefly here, too, but it’s far sunnier entertainment: indeed, early scenes may make you think you’ve stumbled into Allo Allo: The Movie.

Overall, it’s closer, though, to last year’s British home-front dramedy Their Finest in its female-powered wartime melodrama. It’s not quite as good as that film, but it does have a gentle mystery, old-fashioned romance, lots of people who used to be on Downton Abbey and an abundance of fetching period knitwear.

Wearing most of it is old Downtonian Lily James as Juliet Ashton, a successful novelist, who, after receiving a letter from a member of the titular society, pig farmer Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman from Game of Thrones), decides to visit the island and write a joy-of-reading piece for the Times based on the group. But the club is a member down. That’s Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay, who played the late, lamented Lady Sybil Crawley). Julia finds there’s a secret attached to her disappearance and the young child she has left behind in the care of Adams.

The film bounces back and forth briskly between the island’s Nazi occupation and the post-war present. James sighs for England throughout, and in-between times, she shows the typing experience she gained as Churchill’s secretary in The Darkest Hour hasn’t gone to waste.

The actress does seem a little young to be playing a 1940s bestselling novelist – Kate Winslet was originally cast, but withdrew – but with her silver-screen-era looks, she’s a pretty part of a handsome picture that she carries rather well.

It is, though, a movie of uneven performances – veterans Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton (Downton’s Isobel Crawley) both overdo it in their respective turns as society stalwarts.

Elsewhere, Huisman isn’t quite convincing as the Mr-Darcy-as-pig-farmer the film wants him to be; Glen Powell as Juliet’s possessive American diplomat fiancé is smarmy but forgettable.

But Matthew Goode (also of Downton and The Crown) is memorable as Juliet’s indulgent London publisher and so is Katherine Parkinson (of television’s Humans) as Isola, the island’s resident bootlegger and proto-hippy.

The hit book behind it all was written in 2008. The movie that it’s become could have been made pretty much any time since 1945. It may be a film about a time when jackboots marched down British country lanes, but it’s a soft and safe affair. Many will love it for just that.

IN CINEMAS APRIL 25

★★★1/2

This article was first published in the April 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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