Charm emits exuberantly from Mary Ann Shaffer’s debut, and sadly only, novel: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and so it is with Mike Newell’s new film adaptation, in which Lily James plays a writer who falls for a community who survived Nazi occupation via their passion for stories.
Newell’s film opens with the formation of the titular society – a fiction of Shaffer’s whimsical imagination – in 1941 as a guise, thought up by Jessica Brown Findlay’s quick-thinking Elizabeth McKenna, to explain why a group of islanders were out after curfew in German-occupied Guernsey. In reality, the cohort had been indulging in a secret pig feast but it is not long before the lie evolves to truth, tying them together as never before. A literary resistance; how terribly romantic, and antithetical to the book burning of the DSt.
Five years later, in London, popular columnist Juliet Ashton (James) has grown tired of writing ‘faintly amusing essays’ under a cigar-smoking-pseudonym and yearns for more serious projects – her Anne Brontë biography only sold 28 copies ‘worldwide’. Tied to a bland Yank (Glen Powell) and lost in the post-war ‘carnival’ society, Juliet is only too pleased to begin a correspondence with Guernsey-local Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), a founding member of the Society. He’s discovered her address scrawled in the front of an old second-hand Charles Lamb book. She finds her interest piqued by his story. He’s a wool-wearing dish. She’s a Disney princess. See where we’re heading?
Two tales are told in parallel through The Guernsey Soc.; one is an albatross of the past; the other glimmering hope for some brighter future. It’s a set up that brings forth a number of visual and thematic crossovers, adding a compelling underbelly to well-trodden romantic paths. Similarly vital for the raising of the film into three dimensions is an exquisite ensemble that has been perfectly selected from top to bottom. While Tom Courtenay melts your heart, Penelope Wilton will break it. There’s a spirited and assured turn from young talent Kit Connor and typically charming performances by Matthew Goode and a ditsy Katherine Parkinson. Uniting them all, James and Huisman make for a winning partnership.
So lovely is Newell’s cast that faults of the film can be genially brushed aside. Shaffer’s book, completed by Annie Burrows after the author’s passing, is written to an epistolary format, of the sort that doesn’t translate well to cinema. The sequential reading aloud of letters, as ever, tires quickly and it is, thus, a godsend that Kevin Hood, Thomas Bezucha and Don Roos’ script moves Juliet to Guernsey rather quicker than the book. The result is something of a docu-drama, with characters telling personal accounts, captured in narrated flashbacks of their wartime experience.
Just as this story is fiction drawn from a fascinating reality, the film’s deeply romantic depiction of a luscious Guernsey is marred by the lack of actual filming on the island itself. Instead, this is a love letter to literature. Among the more joyful sequences here are a nocturnal library raid, a lively discussion on the merits of the Brontë sisters and the credits, over which the cast perform extracts from Wilde, Austin and, fittingly, Robert Louis Stevenson.
Reminding of Their Finest from last year, this is a rosier Second World War than the likes of Darkest Hour but one not afraid of exploring some grim Home Front truths. When push comes to shove though, Newell’s Guernsey is as sweet as potato peel pie.