In uncomfortable times such as these, we again and again return to moments of clarity in our history. It is perhaps why, especially in Britain, there is no clearer moment in recent memory than the sacrifice and perseverance of an island people during the Second World War. In the last 14 months alone, there have been four excellent dramas about the British war efforts, three of them revolving around the evacuation of Dunkirk. And despite some with descriptive titles as grim as “Darkest Hour,” they also could be described as “the finest.”
Which makes The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society such an initially refreshing enigma. Set decidedly after the British boys on the French beaches were saved, and starring Lily James after she appeared in two sterling WWII dramas in 2017, Guernsey turns its attention to an island much smaller than most in the English Channel, and its plight of English-speaking people occupied by Nazi Germany for most of the war. Yet the potential of its relatively forgotten history, or its narrative of a tenacious young woman who was ahead of her time as a reporter and author unearthing it, is never fully realized. Rather here is a gripping setup that gets distracted by a dreary melodrama.
Set primarily in 1946, The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society follows James’ Juliet Ashton, a fairly successful writer, especially as a woman in her time period. Nevertheless, she is creatively and intellectually stymied: During the Blitzkrieg she lost her parents, and after her attempts at serious literature with a biography on Anne Brontë prove non-lucrative, she’s succeeded with sardonic essays… written under a man’s nom de plume. But this is only after she’s sold all her worldly possessions during the Blitz. Perhaps that is why she is uncomfortable with returning to a world of wealth, particularly when it’s offered from her wealthy, American fiancé, Mark (Glen Powell).
Yet her past suddenly offers a surprising future when a book she was forced to sell wound up in the possession of Dawsey Adams (Michel Huisman), a pig farmer on the tiny island of Guernsey. When living under the gaze of Nazis, and bereft of pigs, one of the few things that gave Dawsey comfort was Juliet’s signed and addressed copy of Charles Lamb essays. He read it as part of the eponymous book club of the film, which was formed by a group of strangers in an attempt to build community and friendship (and mild resistance) against the German forces. It was also the improvised brain child of a remarkable woman named Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay).
Sensing an enticing story, Juliet is soon on a boat headed toward the island in the hope of discovering the full background of such an unusual club—and what exactly a potato peel pie is—for the London Times. What she finds though is that Elizabeth was taken from the island by the Germans, although her four-year-old daughter still lives there with her father Adams, and that the other members of the club are initially recalcitrant of telling their history to an interloper. Also Dawsey is devilishly handsome for a pig farmer. So maybe she’ll stay a little longer and see if she can win them over.
Directed by Mike Newell (Harry Potter 4, Four Weddings and a Funeral), there is a general warmth and amiability to Guernsey that is immediately inviting. A cross between autumn postcards and Currier and Ives living room etchings, the picture’s sweetness is undoubtedly more stylish than most Netflix distributed films—notably the movie was produced by StudioCanal—and that goes a long way. As does its pleasant and persuasive first act.
By switching between the remembrances of the club in its golden heyday during the war and Juliet’s present, the film evokes an intriguing mystery about life for a mostly overlooked English people who were unable to fight them on the beaches or the landing grounds, as well as how it informs the life of an intellectual young woman living in a generation that is adamantly determined to settle down. Permanently so when it comes to the feminine experience.
While the mystery of where Elizabeth is—it has something to do with the Nazis—is hardly shocking, it is presented well enough by earnest supporting work from the rest of the players of the book club, including Katherine Parkinson as the lonely but friendly Isola, Tom Courtenay as the grandfatherly Eben Ramsey, and especially Penelope Wilton as Amelia, Elizabeth’s surrogate mother who has absolutely no desire to see their personal story (and pain) published for Londoners.
It is all a collection of types, but at least when it is about those types finding hearth and kin over a love for literature and erudite pursuits, it has its charms, likely in no small part thanks to being based on a novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It is when the types spread out to the broadly drawn nosey Christian spinster running the boarding house or the cocky arrogance of the nouveau riche American suitor that the surface level appeals dry up.
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Ultimately becoming mired down in the increasingly maudlin intricacies of Elizabeth’s removal, one involving illicit affairs and Good Germans, the more potent this soap’s odor becomes. And the central love triangle, complete with its foregone conclusion ending, is so undercooked that its slow consumption of the entire third act becomes its own kind of enemy occupation, rendering the initial fascination of Guernsey’s war story a painful casualty. By the time Mark is jetting off in a military aircraft on a personal errand to win his girl back, the storytelling battle appears totally lost.
James is luckily one of the film’s great strengths, which may not be too surprising given she appears to have had a star-making moment as the one thing that elevated Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again from perfunctory to enjoyable. However, she also recently starred in a far superior World War II ballad about an occupied land finding that elusive Good German in the vastly underrated The Exception. By comparison The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society is just a flaky substitute. If one is in need of a warm meal of WWII schmaltz, it might do the trick, but it just leaves you recalling fonder gatherings.