Rachel Joyce translates her first novel into her first screenplay with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. There’s more than a touch of the Jonas Jonassonian to the tale, in which a dull pensioner traverses the length and breadth of Britain on foot. Fry boasts fewer comic spikes than Jonasson’s 100 year-old man but is no less eccentric, his story just as strangely believable an anecdote of very human quirk. Joyce’s ponderous words find happy union in the thoughtful eye of Hettie Macdonald, one half of the directing duo behind lockdown hit Normal People, and lush cinematography of Kate McCullough. The plotting is somber and steady but offers much welcome breathing space to appreciate the minutiae of English beauty, town and country alike.
It is, of course, Jim Broadbent chosen for Harold Fry. Who else would fit such a part? A role that demands the marriage of the everyman doldrums with an eye popping eccentricity. It’s not so far removed, barring geography, from his Kempton Bunton of last year’s The Duke. In each film, Broadbent brings vibrant charm to an ageing fool driven far beyond his comfort zone by a rash, ill-considered and spontaneous decision.
Another relation: each film sees Broadbent’s mode ably matched by a withering but weary national treasure and dame. Where The Duke cast Helen Mirren, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry offers up Penelope Wilton as the long-suffering Maureen Fry. It’s an equally safe role for the Downton Abbey star, all pent up rage and lost ambitions, but impeccably done. When the big moments land, Broadbent and Wilton deliver big emotion but it’s their handling of the small and doldrum that really rings true.
We open at breakfast. Harold slices into his post to learn that an old acquaintance – Linda Bassett’s Queenie Hennessy – lies on her deathbed in the North East. Maureen suggests he dig out the patio chairs. It’s a nice day. That’s broadly the measure of thing. No matter where Harold’s pilgrimage takes him, all occurs with gentile nicety. It’s a chance encounter that inspires Harold not simply to write in return but to walk all the way to Berwick-Upon-Tweed. From Devon. On Foot. Whether Harold is so naive as to truly believe his walk will change Queenie’s fate is neither here nor there. What counts is the journey, the folk he will meet on the way, and the opportunity for cathartic reflection both will grant him.
The pacing is pleasant. Macdonald shoots with a thoughtful, deliberate lens, taking time to bathe in the mundane – an apple pealed, a toasted teacake shared – and bask in the natural beauty of the English countryside. A lack of gravity somewhat nulls any notion of the monumental effort required for the reality Harold’s endurance but the rolling cavalcade of backdrops proves no less reflective for it. It’s a neat transition, for instance, that sees Macdonald’s focus shift from the horizon to Harold, its watcher, as Berwick approaches.
And yet, the film is never so profound as its execution aspires. There are heavy twists and reveals to be uncovered in Harold’s past but these land with too little oomph to truly tug the heartstrings. It’s touching where one hopes to be moved. Without such dramatic heft, the film’s comic premise feels slight and denouement underwhelming. Perhaps if Harold had met an elephant along the way…?