WAR. IT’S A time of cruelty and violence, of value-shifting upheaval and horrible surprises. War history, by its very nature is clustered with rich and timeless stories of hope and love. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a film based on the eponymous novel, that draws on all this feel good stuff in a time of perplexity. Generally well filmed, it tells two central stories layered upon one another, but doesn’t step away from schmaltzy cliché, which bruises it as a work and leaves it feeling mediocre, mundane and bland.
What do you do, when, replete with much home-made gin and a belly full of roast pork, you encounter Nazis who deem you to be breaking curfew? Why, you invent something on the double, of course. It is this encounter between hapless Guernsey civilians in the time of the German occupation of the island, during the Second World War, upon which much of the grand narrative of this work is hung. And the power and the magic of literature is the thread that binds it together.
The secondary narrative pinned at a year or so after the end of the war, is the one which coats the tale in such saccharine that it sparkles, but it loses its graphic edge in doing so. This is two-fold, and has less to do with the writing of the work than the casting of the film. In the female lead, you have a very pretty Lily James as a young writer, Julie Ashton. You may recall her in the role of the flapper cousin, Lady Rose MacClare in Brian Percival’s blockbuster historical series, Downton Abbey.
In this role, James makes all the right moves, but it is her physical flawlessness that compromises her credibility. You find the camera’s focus on her eyelashes in times of great trauma, and every aspect of her is too freshly laundered, too consistently without a smudge on her make up or a crease on her forehead, even though she’s roughing it horribly for some of the time. You might find yourself half way through the film wondering what it would be like if someone else was embracing this role.
But do not despair: there is a whole lot more wealth from Downton Abbey on this cast, by way of the fabulous Penelope Wilton as Amelia Maugery, and Jessica Brown Findlay in the role of the feisty Elizabeth McKenna, she of the mystery that underpins it all. The presence of these two women in this film make it a worthy time-investment. Not to forget a performance from the fabulous child performer, Kit Connor, which commits to the energy and urgency of the period beautifully.
The second story that pins this film together is the happily-ever-after one, and the one that ostensibly brings the Potato Pie story to literary awareness. Cemented by the presence of Charles Lamb’s stories which made Shakespeare palatable for young readers, this story brings the kind of romance which sees a man getting down on one knee to give a woman a diamond ring and pledge his undying love to her. And while this aspect is constructed in such a way so as to lend the film structure and thematic balance, the manner in which it ends is so riddled with cliché, predictability and stock romance visuals that you might yourself wishing it had ended sooner, with more sophistication and a tad more mystery.
It’s a good yarn, generally told with competence, and if you can tolerate the thick layers of uncritical schmaltz that wrap it together, and if you don’t mind if your leads almost completely devoid of character, you may love it to bits.
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is directed by Mike Newell and features a cast headed by Janey Ballantyne, Selina Barrow, Nicholas Blatt, Tony Boncza, Dilyana Bouklieva, Tom Bowen, Jessica Brown Findlay, Steve Carroll, Nathaniel Chilton, Kit Connor, Tom Courtenay, David Cromarty, Richard Derrington, Kevin Dodds, Madeleine Domries, Karl Farrer, Megan Frances, Amil Freeman, Jan Freygang, Bronagh Gallagher, Andy Gathergood, Matthew Goode, Joanna Hale, Kevin Hudson, Michiel Huisman, Tim Ingall, Lily James, Davey Jones, Florence Keen, Lee Kemp, Oliver Kensit, Wade Lewin, Nathaniel Lonsdale, Gregory Mann, Liz Maynard, Clive Merrison, Steve Morphew, Jack Morris, Manisha Nagar, Niall D. O’Loughlin, Rachal Olivant, Marek Oravec, Tom Owen, Katherine Parkinson, Sarah Parnell, Nicolo Pasetti, Emily Patrick, Scott Plumridge, Alexa Povah, Glen Powell, Ivana Radjenovic, Pippa Rathborne, Jordan Luke Reeves, CJ Revan, Philip Ridout, Carl Robinson, Stephanie Schonfield, Janette Sharpe, Estelle Sherlock, Annemarie Shillito, Bernice Stegers, Joanna Thorne, Oksana Veber, Gregory Wellman, and Penelope Wilton. It is written by Thomas Bezucha, Kevin Hood and Don Roos, based on the novel by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer. Produced by Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Mitchell Kaplan and Paula Mazur, it features creative input by Alexandra Harwood (music), Zac Nicholson (cinematography), Paul Tothill (editing), Susie Figgis (casting), James Merifield (production design) and Charlotte Walter (costumes). Release date in South Africa through Ster Kinekor, Cinema Nouveau: August 10 2018.