Monday 16 September 2019

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society movie review:' 'Newell’s film is not without a certain retro charm

(12A, 123mins) ***

Love island: Lily James plays a young London writer who visits Guernsey
Love island: Lily James plays a young London writer who visits Guernsey
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

It’s often forgotten that the Nazi jackboot did tread on one small part of Britain. Between 1940 and 1945, the Channel Islands were occupied by the Wehrmacht, who governed with their usual winning charm.

Thousands of islanders were deported, many to concentration camps, slave labour was common and rationing relentlessly severe.

Things must have been grim  for the inhabitants of Jersey, Guernsey, Sark and the smaller islands, but in this thin but likeably old-fashioned film, solace is found in literature.

Based on a bestselling novel, Mike Newell’s gentle, meandering drama stars Lily James as Juliet Ashton, a young London writer who’s made a name for herself with a humorous column about life during wartime. It’s 1946, her columns have been published as a book and she’s trudging around Britain wearily promoting it when she receives an intriguing letter from Guernsey.

It’s from one Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), a total stranger who by chance came across a copy of Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia signed by Juliet, and wants to find out more about the 19th century prose stylist.

Charmed by the odd coincidence of a book she once owned finding its way to the middle of the English Channel, Juliet sends back several of Lamb’s other essay collections, together with a warm letter. Dawsey replies and tells her about the book club he’s a member of.

He describes his fellow members as though they’re characters out of Dickens: Eben Ramsey (Tom Courtenay), the local postmaster, a good-natured gossip; Isola Pribby (Katherine Parkinson), an earthy eccentric; Amelia Maugery (Penelope Wilton), a no-nonsense matriarch; and Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay), a young firebrand and patriot.

This motley crew defied the German curfew to meet each week and furiously debate the merits of the Brontes and Jane Austen, seasoning their rows with homemade gin and inedible potato peel pie.

Back in gloomy, Luftwaffe-battered London, Juliet is enchanted and decides to travel to Guernsey to give a reading to the group. But that visit will be more problematic than she imagined and a frosty welcome is a prelude to a slow unravelling of the Literary Society’s experiences under German occupation.

Elizabeth is missing and though Dawsey acts as a father to her four-year-old daughter, the truth is rather more complicated. Meanwhile, a spark worthy of an Austen novel is flaring between Dawsey and Juliet, who has just become engaged to a dashing and impetuous American. Trouble is brewing then, but Juliet is engrossed by the story of the Guernsey Literary Society and is beginning to feel right at home on the idyllic island.

This is soft focus stuff, a fuzzy film with all the wartime edges knocked off that seems to belong to a more innocent movie-going age.But Newell’s film putters a little too sedately towards its denouement and doesn’t always manage to make its uniformly cuddly characters seem credible.

The Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society might know a thing or two about making a feast from scraps, but seem less sure-footed when it comes to matters bookish.

Isola Pribby sighs into her sloe gin and wonders when “my Heathcliff” is going to come along, but a close reading of Wuthering Heights would have told her that Cathy Earnshaw’s lover was a stalker, a lunatic and quite probably a psychopath.

This endemic intellectual flabbiness is no doubt primarily the fault of the source material, but Newell’s film is not without a certain retro charm.

Lily James, who may or may not have the making of a film star, is well cast as the recessive, restless and endlessly curious Juliet, and it’s always a pleasure to watch Tom Courtenay in action: he has a way of bringing more to a part than is written down in the script.

But I would have liked to have seen more of Jessica Brown Findlay, a charismatic actress who’s frustratingly pushed to the perimeters of this harmless, watchable film.

(12A, 123mins) ***

Also releasing this week: The Cured movie review: 'Irish horror full of good ideas shot in and around north central Dublin'

Films coming soon...

The Avengers: Infinity War (Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch); The Delinquent Season (Cillian Murphy, Andrew Scott); Beast (Jessie Buckley, Geraldine James); The Wound (Nakhane Toure).

Irish Independent

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