"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” is the kind of film that you come across accidently. Despite its loud, mouthful of a name, this film is a quiet but delightful surprise. It’s not that one doesn’t expect much from it, but rather that a movie with such a title is either ignored before reaching the fourth syllable or etched into memory.
This period drama, beautifully directed by Mike Newell, is based on the eponymous novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It centers on Juliet Ashton (Lily James) a young writer living in London who has made a name for herself after publishing a collection of short stories about the war. In 1946, she begins communicating with a farmer across the channel, Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), about a literary society he belongs to called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. She is intrigued and travels to the island to write about it. There, she meets the other members: Isola (Katherine Parkinson), Eben (Tom Courtenay), and Amelia (Penelope Wilton).
During the German occupation, this group came together inadvertently, finding unity and comfort in the books that they discussed as well as in each other’s company. The puzzling disappearance of one of its members, Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay), however, casts a shadow on their lives. Due to the general lack of mystery around Elizabeth and her disappearance, Juliet decides to stay in Guernsey to piece together the past events.
Besides its intricate plot, the film’s characters and the wonderful actors who portray them are some of its strongest assets. Juliet is an intriguing and passionate woman, doing all she can to find out the truth about Elizabeth and help the members of the Society heal from the trauma of the occupation. She also bravely perseveres to find her own happiness. James plays this role with sensitivity, imbuing Juliet’s struggles with dignity and strength. In this role, she is so charming that you cannot help but fall in love with her character and spirit. Michiel Huisman is also a lovely addition to the cast, making us understand Dawsey’s guardedness and reticence clearly. He and James gravitate to each other easily, such that the development of their relationship is one of the best parts of the film.
Parkinson and Courtenay infuse their whimsical characters with a lightness and humor that balances the bitterness that Wilton’s Amelia brings to the film. Though they are not your usual stock comic relief, their easy humor is expected. It proves to be quite necessary to keep the atmosphere from being too heavy. While she mostly appears through flashbacks, Findlay’s Elizabeth is courageous and bright—a force of surety. Though her ultimate fate is not surprising, Juliet’s investigation into her disappearance is kept suspenseful throughout the film.
While plenty of WWII romances and book club comedies have come before it, “Guernsey” does a fine job of combining these elements into one in a new way. It differentiates itself by delicately unfolding the plot. Though a lot is packed in, its story and twists are never obvious, fluttering between scenes after the war and during the war. In a way, it even feels incredibly reminiscent of old WWII movies like “South Pacific” (1958). It is not nostalgic per se, but it has an old-fashioned aspect that brings a certain kind of warmth that those movies also sought to inspire. Costume designer Charlotte Walter is to thank for this feeling with her authentic designs. James in particular sports a wide array of fashionable and enviable numbers, which change over the course of the film to reflect her character development.
“Guernsey,” for all its long title, is absorbing. It combines a great cast with an intriguing plot and characters. It’s not necessarily revelatory, but it is a wonderful nugget of a film. Whether due to its acting, sprawling shots of beach, or even its difficult name, it is sure to stay with you for some time after watching it.
—Staff writer Aline G. Damas can be reached at email@example.com.
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