Director: Mike Newell
Cast: Lily James, Matthew Goode, Michiel Huisman, Glen Powell, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Katherine Parkinson, Jessica Brown Findlay
It may (or may not) come as a surprise that not many people in the world have heard of the island of Guernsey, at least not outside of the Channel Islands. And why would they? Why would anyone give a hoot about a twenty-five-square mile rock in the middle of the English Channel with barely a population of sixty three thousand? Perhaps a hoot should be given because Guernsey, along with Jersey and all the tiny islands, were invaded and occupied by the Nazis during World War II, the only part of the British Isles to have been. Out of the islands’ collective history comes many tales of loss, sadness, despair and hope. Yes, hope. The islands were eventually liberated by the English and all was set right again. Or was it? The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society provides a glimpse into life on the island during its occupation and just after, albeit through fictional characters with their own fictional story. Is there enough fact filtered through the fiction to provide an attention-grabbing narrative, or is this just another film over-dramatising a very rough time in Guernsey’s history in order to boost the fiction?
The film at once is easily comparable to 2017’s Another Mother’s Son, a true story about a woman on the occupied island of Jersey who sheltered and hid a Russian prisoner of war at great risk to her life and those of her friends who helped her. Based on the book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is about fictional author Juliet Ashton (James), a young Londoner who lived through the Blitz, and her meeting with some of Guernsey’s occupants. One day, Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams (Huisman), an islander who has happened upon Juliet’s copy of Essays of Elia and is curious about the author, Charles Lamb. He writes to Juliet hoping she might be able to help him find more of Lamb’s work. Having seemingly not heard of Guernsey before, Juliet replies to Dawesy with a copy of Lamb’s book of Shakespeare stories for children. She also wants to know more about his book club, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. As a result of their back-and-forth correspondence, Juliet visits the island and makes an appearance at the book club, doing a reading of one her own books. Through the members of the club, Juliet learns about the occupation of the island, the islander’s own stories and some dark secrets, hoping to put them all together into her own book based on their experiences, all the while finding her love life becoming more and more troublesome.
Director Mike Newell is no stranger to period dramas (Great Expectations, Love in the Time of Cholera, Prince of Persia, if you will…) and awkward romances (Four Weddings and a Funeral, An Awfully Big Adventure). So this film would seem perfectly suited to him. The story itself dips at times, attempting to drag itself along by using Juliet’s peaking interest to attempt to peak audience’s interests, but where it does lag Newell manages to keep us interested/distracted with stunning shots of the landscape and architecture (sadly none of this is actually Guernsey-based). At least once he also introduces the indigenous language of islanders, Guernésiais (Guernsey-French), which is probably easily missable by those unaware of the language and will likely be mistaken for French or just missing what a character has said. Nevertheless, it’s a lovely touch. Other than that, there’s not a lot else to really make the film stand out, except perhaps a small part near the beginning that shows just a glimpse of the devastation during the Blitz in London.
To have someone whose name currently resounds through Hollywood front a film based on Guernsey must be quite exciting for islanders. Lily James was perhaps the perfect choice for Juliet, despite Kate Winslet and Rosamund Pike previously being attached to the role. Her experience in period pieces such as Downton Abbey, Darkest Hour and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (technically) surely lend a hand to her performance. However James is always one that feels more suited to stage than screen, being almost theatrical in her execution. Her style doesn’t often change, no matter her character, unless she has an American accent, then she seems to up her game. She gives it a good go, but she needs to stop overthinking (as it feels) and relax into a more natural performance. Supporting performances from the rest of the cast are just that, supportive. Any honourable mentions would go to Goode’s turn as Juliet’s likely gay literary agent, Parkinson’s comedic roots playing out in her role as Isola, a quirky islander who becomes a great friend to Juliet, and Wilton’s endearing performance as an older islander who has lost too many loved ones to the Germans to be able to see one more go.
From a more personal perspective, being someone who originates from Jersey, in the Channel Islands we are generally brought up learning about the occupation, both through formal education and stories passed down through our families, just as those who survived bombings and lived through evacuations throughout the United Kingdom share their stories. I wouldn’t like to speak on behalf of all islands, but to have books and/or films written by people from outside the islands who haven’t lived through or grown up with the stories of the occupation is something that is encouraging but makes us wary. It was obviously a very trying time for the occupants of the islands and the things our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents went through still haunt many of them today. Telling any story that revolves around the occupation must be handled very delicately. Thankfully, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society treats the occupation and those involved with great respect, even if the facts are only lightly touched upon around the fiction. The emotion is mostly there along with the feeling that the war has left its mark in a truly infinite way. The Channel Islands are stunning places to visit (yes, shameless promotion of my home, I’m doing it) and should you ever get to go I highly recommend the vast amount of places you can go to see the history of the occupation for yourself (museums, hospitals, bunkers etc). Find yourself the right islander and they’ll take you to places off the beaten tourist paths. It’s a very emotional way to learn about the war in the Channel Islands, but also very humbling and worthwhile. Films like Another Mother’s Son and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society are great for educating people about the islands and possibly the hardest time in their history, but you have to visit any of the islands in order to truly feel it for yourself.