Director: Mike Newell
Writers: Kevin Hood, Thomas Bezucha, Don Roos
Starring: Lily James, Matthew Goode, Michiel Huisman
In 1946 London-based writer Juliet Ashton (James) begins exchanging letters with Guernsey resident Dawsey Adams (Huisman), who is a member of a book club known as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society that was formed when the island was occupied by the Germans during the war. Learning of their story, Juliet feels compelled to write a book about them, and so travels to Guernsey to meet them. When she arrives and gets to know the members of the club, Juliet uncovers some even darker secrets.
I am of course a self-confessed cynic, but always try to go into every film with an open mind, but when a film has ‘from the producers of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ written on the poster, then that makes entering with an open mind a far more difficult task.
Well, it gives me no great pleasure to confirm that piece of cynical (but ultimately rather appropriate) marketing essentially writes the review of the film. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the cinematic equivalent of taking a gentle walk along a seafront on a warm spring day while eating an ice cream; it is a pure middle of the road, crowd-pleasing, non-risk taking, Guernsey-tourist-board-friendly fodder. It is harmless enough and a relatively easy viewing experience that is perfectly watchable, but never truly grips or engages, and certainly does not leave any lasting memories apart from perhaps leading to a few more people potentially adding Guernsey to their list of potential holiday destinations.
There is certainly potential within the narrative for the film to explore some very emotive subjects and themes, as there is no denying that all of the characters involved (both Guernsey and London-based) would have had some horrific experiences during World War II, but the film intentionally skirts around the very edges of these elements of the plot and to distract from this quickly shows us some more shots of the Guernsey countryside or the love triangle character taking long looks at one another.
Note that I stated ‘relatively’ easy viewing, and this is because at 124 minutes long, TGL&PPPS is a bit too much of an arduous viewing experience that at times is a little too slow-paced. The plot itself often feels overstuffed with too many elements, and how the narrative links them all together is often painfully contrived. Contrivances can be perfectly forgivable, but here the contrivances are so blatant and high in quantity that it does often provide a cacophonous narrative that struggles to flow and reach any kind of satisfying conclusion. One particularly lazy element of the plot is that some of the characters are unashamedly dealt with in way too much of a casual way by the narrative, especially Glen Powell’s character, who is one third of the inevitable love triangle involving the protagonist but also (and conveniently) is essential in Juliet getting some information about one of the book club’s key members.
These faults would perhaps be a bit more forgivable if it felt like the film had some genuine intentions and contained a bit more warmth. However, everything feels a little orchestrated and safe, bordering on cynical, where the screenwriters seem to think extra subplots equals extra substance. However, in the end these subplots only serve to make the film feel over bloated and not really have the substance to deal with any of the potential themes that it could have used the source material to explore.
The performances from the talented British cast cannot be faulted, and they do the best with the lacklustre material they are given; Lily James plays the sweet and naïve protagonist in her usual way, while the standouts are veterans Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton, the latter providing a particularly committed, passionate performance, but these can only elevate the material so much.
As the film enters its final third the contrivances only seem to increase, and this does lead to painful predictability with everything just being a bit too neat and tidy. So, sticking with my ice cream on the seafront analogy; it was ice cream that seemed like a good idea, but then as soon as you take your first bite you realise it is a flavour that is not as appetising as it sounds and is a little too saccharine, but you carry on slowly and nonchalantly eating it anyway because you have now paid for it. But then again, in the screening I went to I was the youngest member of the audience by at least a couple of decades and I overheard many people saying they thought it was a great film, so what the hell do I know?!?
Director Mike Newell carefully keeps things firmly in the middle of the road but lets the writer’s overtsuff what is an already contrived narrative; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a cynical crowd-pleasing melodrama that lacks narrative focus or discipline.
It never ceases to fascinate me how differently we react to films. I loved it, and wince at your words “a cynical crowd-pleasing melodrama that lacks narrative focus or discipline”. For me, it is artfully constructed, sumptuously filmed, and beautifully acted.