Based on Mary Ann Shaffer’s only novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a historical drama that looks at the German occupation of Guernsey during the Second World War.
Juliet Ashton (James) is a successful author who receives an assignment from The Times by her agent (Matthew Goode) in 1946. She starts to receive letters from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), a pig farmer from Guernsey who lived on the island during the German occupation. During their correspondences, the pair strikes up a friendship, and he tells her about his friends who formed a group by accident. Juliet goes to Guernsey believing this group could be a subject for her article: but the group harbor some dark secrets.
There has been a trend wartime themed film from the UK, from military and political stories like Dunkirk and Darkest Hour to subjects about the home front like Their Finest. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society sadly does not match those heights. It was a film with a great cast and solid filmmaking team but what they come up with is a standard story.
James is a lovely presence (there was a reason why she played Cinderella), and she brought this out for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Juliet is a kindly, intelligent woman and a feminist (or at least the 1940s version of one), but there was a tragedy in her past. She is also a woman looking for some sort of belonging, rejecting an expensive apartment because it reminded her of the Blitz, lost her family during the war and despite her wealth doesn’t like to flash it about. I expect that in the novel Juliet was written to be older because Kate Winslett, Rebecca Ferguson, and Michelle Dockery were considered for the role before James was cast but the former Downton Abbey star pulls it off.
James was also surrounded by a talented cast featuring Huisman above, Jessica Brown Findlay, Katherine Parkinson, Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton. Naturally, they all give solid performances, and Wilton was a highlight because her cold and hostile exterior as a cover for her own pain and grief and her story could have worked as a film or novel by itself.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a great looking production. It was directed Mike Newell, best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, so he is a talented filmmaker, and the film does excel with its costumes and cinematography. 1940s fashion and styles really suit James, and she did look ravishing in the dresses she wears. It is a regal film.
The central theme of the film is grief and the aftermath of war. Juliet is suffering from the loss of her parents, and many of the islanders have suffered in some form. People lost relatives during the bombing of the island and been arrested afterward; the children were evacuated, the island is recovering physically and economically. Around the island, there are concrete towers, a dark monument to the Nazi occupation and the slave labor who build it.
The occupation story bears a resemblance to 2015 adaptation of Suite Françoise which looked at a French town during the early days of the Nazi occupation. The flashbacks to the invasion were the more interesting aspects of the films, and the whole movie should have focused on it. The film does touch on some issues like the moral grays of war, that it is easy to see the Germans as evil during the early days of war but find out that some of them are nice. After the occupation some people are ostracized for working with the Germans with one character who sold information to the Germans: the novel properly went into more detail, and the film definitely should have.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has been marketed as a comedy-drama, and there are some witty lines. Parkinson was the best comedic performer, playing a proto-hippie who makes a potent gin and seems like she’s away with the fairies. Newell also gave the film a melodramatic gothic quality for some scenes, and it is very much a drama with some comedic moments.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had a compelling story about the war buried by its standard framing story. Their Finest and Suite Françoise were better films that looked at similar themes.