20 April — 03 May, DCA
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a cinematic composition. Simple and charming, the film unfolds like an aria, soft and picturesque. In collaboration with scriptwriters Don Roos and Tom Bezucha, Mike Newell’s screen adaptation of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow’s epistolary novel is a truly gentle and gorgeous recreation of post-WWII Guernsey. With its 1940s costuming, classic score, cohesive cinematography and clean editing, this feature truly embodies the nostalgia of heritage cinema.
The film itself begins in 1961 on the eponymous isle; five figures grow cold, their faces pale under the white light of an electric torch. They have broken curfew, and now, must find an excuse to justify this act of rebellion and normalise the eccentricity of their relationships in order to evade the repercussions. And what else but ‘bookwormery’ could bring a bootlegger, pig-farmer, widowed mother, postman, and impulsive woman together under the darkness? An unregistered book club becomes their ruse, and, full of drink and adrenaline, the characters fumble to find a convincing name for their unlikely alliance. It is in this moment that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society flourishes into existence.
The narrative continues in 1964 with Lily James in the role of best-selling author Juliet Ashton, who radiates humility, strength and 1940s gracious composure. Perhaps a bit too brief in the film, a correspondence between Juliet and Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) commences and in a series of letters, the two bond over their appreciation for essayist Charles Lamb. It is as if, with each response and return, nothing but imagination and curiosity matters, but these two attributes are clearly enough to sustain this growing friendship.
Juliet’s witty wartime vignettes award her recognition across Britain, and yet it is her unprofited academic essay on the life of Anne Brontë, that best introduces the audience to her feminism and intellect, arriving at the return-address only a day before the author herself. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society epitomises the uncanny way two strangers have the potential to recognise themselves within one another.
The film advertises mystery with the disappearance of Elisabeth McKenna creating a Nancy Drew of Lily James’ protagonist. The exposition itself, however, does not surprise. It embodies viewer-expectations in a seemingly intentional manner. It is as if Newell is aware of both character-conventions and genre-stereotypes and instead of inverting them, he seems content in assimilating each one.
If there’s one criticism that could be levelled at The Guernsey Literary, it is this: despite the fact that the film succeeds in its undertaking of three genres – mystery, historical fiction and romance – its characters, however, sometimes seem to lack originality. They embody their role to such an extent that one might struggle to differentiate them from similar archetypes. The film’s uniqueness might have been greater established with a bit more reference to the heroine’s backstory, as we know more about the society than we do about the young writer who brings its story both to screen and page. Although a pivotal moment does give the audience momentary insight into Juliet’s childhood, another few flashbacks might have not only reinforced the individuality, but also enabled viewers to better empathise with Shaffer and Barrow’s charming protagonist.
Yet, the actors and actresses in The Guernsey Literary do succeed in bringing novelty to their characters. Indeed, there is a cosiness in their interactions. Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Glen Powell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Katherine Parkinson, Tom Courtenay, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton, and the cast of The Guernsey Literary are truly adept at channeling the emotions of characters whose lives are irrevocably changed through sacrifice and vulnerability. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a delight, sure to warm the hearts of readers and writers alike.