Review: The Guernsey Literary Society – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

The Guernsey Literary Society – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

Directed by: Mike Newell | 123 minutes | drama, history | Actors: Michiel Huisman, Lily James, Matthew Goode, Jessica Brown Findlay, Penelope Wilton, Katherine Parkinson, Tom Courtenay, Clive Merrison, Glen Powell, Bernice Stegers, Kit Connor, Bronagh Gallagher, Florence Keen, Gregory Mann, Andy Gathergood, Nicolo Pasetti

American author Mary Ann Shaffer wrote “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” not only a novel with a name that doesn’t roll over easily, but also not the story she wanted to write. With the intention of making a biography of sculptor Kathleen Scott – the first wife of British explorer Robert Falcon Scott who died in 1912 during a polar expedition – she traveled to Cambridge. Because the papers she wanted to use for her research were unusable, she traveled to the Channel Island of Guernsey as a holiday. Due to dense fog, the local airport was temporarily closed, forcing Shaffer to limit her visit to the island to the bookshop at the airport. Here, however, she learned all about the German occupation of Guernsey during the Second World War. It would be twenty years before she decided to process that information into a novel. But tragedy struck: Just as she had found a publisher to publish her story, her health was failing her. After her death on February 16, 2008, her niece Annie Burrows, a respected children’s author, put the finishing touches so that Shaffer could posthumously make her debut as a novelist.

The writer could not have imagined that ten years after the publication of her book there would also be a film adaptation of ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society’ – for convenience the title was shortened to ‘The Guernsey Literary Society’ (2018), which is of course a mouth full. The story is set in 1946. The central theme is writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James), who lost both her parents in a bombing during the war. She transformed her grief into a comic story that resonated with Londoners as they struggle to shake off the horrors of war. There is even a party again, although Juliet does not feel comfortable with that. Admittedly, on one of those occasions she meets the handsome but sleek American soldier Mark (Glen Powell), who then tries to court her by showering her with bunches of flowers and a stunner of an engagement ring. Juliet may say she wants to marry him, but her mind is elsewhere.

She has received a letter from a pig farmer in Guernsey, who happened to see her name and address in an old book. Writing on behalf of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club created during the war as a cover to avoid curfews, he asks her to track down a particular book for him. Juliet is immediately fascinated by the letter that she decides to go to Guernsey to track down the members of the book club so she can write a story about them. On the island, she soon comes into contact with them: post office clerk Eben (Tom Courtenay), herbalist Isola (Katherine Parkinson), the embittered Amelia (Penelope Wilton) and the pig farmer Dawsey (Michiel Huisman, who needs to work on his accent). They carry with them a big secret that revolves around the last member of the book club and its initiator, Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay), who was arrested by the Germans and has not returned. Juliet dives into the mystery like a true Miss Marple and decides not to let go until it is clear what happened to Elizabeth.

‘The Guernsey Literary Society’ was directed by Mike Newell, the Briton who once became famous with the modern classic ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ (1994) and in recent years has mainly focused on romantic drama à la ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ ( 2003), ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ (2007) and ‘Great Expectations’ (2012); each and every one of them entertaining films but not very startling. That list also includes ‘The Guernsey Literary Society’. The film does not bring anything new, colors well between the lines and looks rock solid, but there is certainly nothing wrong with that. The cast puts on an excellent performance without exception and although we see for miles what happened to Elizabeth and that Juliet can never resist the charms of the sexiest pig farmer ever, Newell manages to hold our attention without any effort. Using flashbacks, all members of The Guernsey Literary Society’ gradually let go of the events underlying their collective war trauma. It’s not too complicated, but is delivered with enough conviction and charm that we won’t complain and we even want to forgive the film’s predictability.

This is not only due to the excellent actors – we can pass on Michiel Huisman’s volatile accent for now – but also because of the beautiful setting. There is something soothing about the wild nature of the island, the simplicity of life there opens the urban Juliet’s eyes immediately. While the people of London prefer to forget the war as quickly as possible, there is no escaping it in Guernsey. Juliet needs that confrontation to face her own suffering and grief. ‘The Guernsey Literary Society’ has that warm nostalgic vibe that, for example, ‘Their Finest’ (2016) also has and manages to string together different genres – war drama, mystery and romance – with little effort into a more than entertaining ode to the power of the written word.

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