If you haven’t committed the title of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society to memory, as I did before writing this review, you might need a few runs at it. Director Mike Newell’s WW2 drama adapts Mary Ann Shaffer’s novel (which was completed and published posthumously by her niece Annie Barrows) so faithfully, that even the unwieldy title stays.
The title is rationalised very early on, as the titular book club’s members are caught after curfew in Nazi-occupied Guernsey, and drunkenly invent the reason for their late night. One year after the war is over, the society comes to the attention of dissatisfied author Juliet Ashton (Lily James), when she comes into correspondence with pig farmer and founding member Dawsey (Michiel Huisman) about one of her early passion projects.
Making her excuses to her publisher Sidney (Matthew Goode) and her American beau Mark (Glen Powell), Juliet slips away to Guernsey, hoping to write a profile on the group for the Times. But once there, she becomes charmed by the island, beguiled by its pig farmer, and intrigued by the mystery surrounding the group’s founder, Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay), who hasn’t yet resurfaced now that the Germans have been driven out.
Although Newell’s Harry Potter film, The Goblet Of Fire, is frequently touted among the best of that series, it has some of the same problems as this one. At least in the case of JK Rowling’s first long-read volume, there’s plenty of intrigue, but the same reverence does few favours for the screenplay of something like The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, which relies heavily on flashbacks. All of this has happened before, and… well, that’s pretty much it actually.
The film is dramatically inert as Juliet meanders around picturesque Guernsey (there is an inevitable “visit Guernsey” gold spot ad playing in cinemas before the film) asking different characters to recount their stories, and only very gradually getting a full picture over the course of the 124 minute running time. Without wishing to set off the film reviewer’s QI klaxon, it’s very much as bland as the dish that brings the society together.
There’s little fun in dunking on a film for which you’re not part of the target audience, so it’s worth saying that it’s not awful, merely anodyne. No one should go into this expecting something edgy, but it all feels so bland, like a milky, sugary cup of tea that’s sat too long. All of this means that among a talented and likeable cast, the two standouts appear to be acting in a different film altogether.
The first, of course, is Penelope Wilton as untrusting matriarch Amelia. Wilton is always fantastic, and she brings the emotional heft to every scene she’s in with her saddened, tragic demeanour, quite rightly guarding her friends and her secrets fiercely. And the other is Katharine Parkinson, as the island’s resident gin-distiller Isola. If you only knew her from The IT Crowd, she’d look ideally placed as the comic relief, but you’re reminded of what a fine actress she is when Isola reveals more of herself in a memorable moment later on.
But when there’s 15 and a half minutes of screentime to every word of your title, and your title is The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, there might be just a bit more fat on your film than might suit the ‘no flour, no butter, just potatoes’ approach of occupied Guernsey. It’s awfully paced too, and the way in which the film eventually clears the board of two characters for its happy ending is particularly crass, on one count because of a character being a bit of a non-entity, and the other for the exact opposite reason.
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is a picture postcard of a film, blown up to cartoonish proportions in order to drabble as much as possible on the reverse side. It’s not necessarily bad, but there are only a couple of standout performances here and there to make this worth watching. Other than those, only the title will really stick with you.
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is in UK cinemas now.