Sometimes, it’s best to walk into a cinema knowing absolutely nothing about what you’re about to see.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the kind of movie that, had I not been accompanying my fair partner to the cinemas, I probably wouldn’t have seen. It’s based off a novel written by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer in 2008, which centres on the life of British author Juliet Ashton (Lily James, Downton Abbey).
Ashton has made a literary career writing comedic columns under the alias Izzy Bickerstaff. They’re successful enough, but it’s not creatively fulfilling. So when Ashton receives a letter from a member of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Dawsey Adam (Michiel Huisman, who played Daario Naharis on Game of Thrones), she becomes excited at the prospect of writing something meaningful.
Set just after the Second World War, the film (and the novel it was based from) centres on the stories of people around Guernsey during the German occupation. It’s a tiny island just north of Normandy, and was occupied by German troops from 1940 until May 9, 1945, the day after Churchill announced the end of WW2 in Europe.
The movie actually kicks off with a scene showing the formation of the society: a group of Guernsey locals are scurrying about at night, until they’re stopped by a German patrol. Under questioning, they quickly explain that they’re off to a meeting of their literary and potato peel pie society.
The society is really just a cover for the locals to move around occasionally, smuggling foods that haven’t been taken by the Germans and looking for books and other treasures left behind on the island. As much as anything else, it’s a coping mechanism: just before the Germans invaded, nearly half of the island’s population evacuated Guernsey, including 4000 school children.
Those left behind had to find ways to keep their spirits up. In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, reading was one such means, and it’s through regular fossicking that one of the society’s members discovered an old copy of Essays of Elia that Ashton used to own. Once the war had ended, Adams begins corresponding with Ashton, which compels her to send more books to Guernsey while inquiring about the formation of the unusual book club.
It’s there that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society starts to unfold proper. It’s not so much a story about the German occupation, or Ashton’s career as an author, but discovering the quirks behind each of the club’s personalities, how they all intertwine, and the slow impact the tiny British island has on Ashton.
Just travelling to Guernsey puts her in a bind, as it means postponing a string of promotions for her latest book, leaving her fiancée Mark Reynolds (Glen Powell) and publisher/best friend Sidney (Matthew Goode, The Crown and Downton Abbey) waiting in the wings.
More importantly, Ashton’s trip to the island also becomes a mystery to unravel what happened to Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay), the founder of the society who was imprisoned on the continent during the war. Elizabeth only appears in flashbacks, but her rebellious and outgoing nature – a rare combination amongst the islanders – becomes the film’s driving force.
As you’d expect from British comedy/dramas of this ilk, it’s funny in a surprising, almost enchanting way. The IT Crowd‘s Katherine Parkinson contributes a lot as Isola, the island’s local gin enthusiast and fellow club member, while also acting as the expositional glue between scenes.
Her moments with Ashton are actually essential, since the plot jumps back and forth from 1941 to 1946. Each of the characters’ stories are split into little vignettes, which slows the plot down as the narrative jumps from first introducing Ashton’s world in London, to establishing Guernsey and the people there.
But if you haven’t read the novel, the narrative to and fro likely won’t be a concern. What you’re left with is ultimately a heartwarming, quintessentially British tale of romance and finding oneself in others, as Ashton gains a greater appreciation for life through her new eccentric friends, and understanding the damage left behind by the Nazis (which the movie doesn’t really focus on to maintain an uplifting tone throughout).
The biggest criticism is that Guernsey isn’t an especially complex or deep film. It’s romantic escapism, featuring a progressive, adventurous author who becomes enchanted by the small town mentality of the island and the people on it. Dawsey and Ashton aren’t the most amazing on-screen couple either, although as most of the story centres more on Dawsey’s child, Kit, and the other characters, the lack of chemistry is more a disappointment than a dealbreaker.
It’s not the sort of film that will have you ruminating for days on end about the twists or complex characters within, but it will put a smile on your face and give you the occasional laugh. It’s a perfectly pleasant film, and a decent watch for anyone who grew up watching (forced or willingly) a lot of BBC dramas or romances. Downton Abbey fans will get an extra kick from the cast, too.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is screening in select Australian theatres now.