The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a largely unmemorable affair, outside of its title.
Mainland Britain may have never been occupied by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, but the Channel Islands were – a fact that was given a muted reaction by the British Government at the time, and has barely been noted in mainstream accounts of the war ever since. This is particularly unusual, considering that popular culture has been rife with stories depicting an alternate history where enemy forces took power over the UK (like last year’s BBC series SS-GB), ignoring the fact that across various British islands this was a reality.
I imagine many viewers will be leaving The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society frantically Googling to see if Nazi forces had indeed taken over the Channel Islands, making sure that this wasn’t just a preposterous bit of dramatic licence to add some flavour to an otherwise dull investigative drama. Various documentaries and fictional works have covered the occupation, only to fall quickly into obscurity – a fate that seems entirely likely to befall this latest film from director Mike Newell, where the lack of historical insight the film presents would have been an easier pill to swallow had anything else on screen offered a sense of dramatic urgency.
Set in 1946, Lily James stars as Juliet Ashton, a London based novelist who has only found literary success penning novels under a pseudonym. During the war, one of her novels (that astonishingly only sold 28 copies worldwide) made its way over to the island of Guernsey, becoming a favourite of a literary group who formed shortly after Nazi forces occupied their island. Inspired by a letter she receives from the group – and assigned by The Times to write an article about the joys of reading – Juliet heads over to the island but upon arriving, she finds the group are hiding a dark secret about a former member who disappeared during the war. Not only this, but her engagement to a handsome American soldier is threatened when she meets Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), with whom a close personal relationship is quickly formed.
The film’s central problem is that it rushes headfirst into the narrative without properly grounding the characters and their motivations, making the later dramatic developments feel contrived as a result. The source material, co-written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (who completed the novel after Shaffer’s passing) was a beloved, critically acclaimed bestseller back in 2008. Ten years later, the film adaptation has been written by Don Roos and Tom Bezucha (with a later re-write from Kevin Hood), who are responsible for works of overblown, manipulative melodrama like Marley & Me, Single White Female and The Family Stone. Their hallmarks are all over the script, as character motivations within the film are never believable – most prominently, the actions of Juliet Ashton feel impulsive onscreen due to a lack of properly establishing her as a character. Roos and Bezucha’s screenplay never allows us to understand why she would quickly become so enamoured with the community, and so fast to turn her back on a loving relationship she showed no signs of falling out of when introduced.
On this note, every attempt at forging a romantic relationship between Juliet and farmer Dawsey Adams is jettisoned by the fact the screenplay never gives us any reason to assume romantic attraction would be in the air. Later moments in the film feel awkward due to how inauthentic the forced love triangle narrative feels, ringing hollow whenever a deeper partnership is suggested. To a certain extent, this is as much a fault of the actors as the screenplay itself; in a comedic supporting role, Katherine Parkinson manages to breathe life and emotion into a lonely character whose only love comes through the joy of reading. She finds depth in the thinly written caricature of a character, whereas the other members of the ensemble find themselves struggling to make a meal out of the underwritten screenplay. Parkinson’s undervalued talents as an actress help her shine more effectively and continue to embarrass the rest of the established cast, who can’t make the storyline ring true, nor make their characters feel lived-in.
Lily James’ leading performance is one of the worst offenders, playing every scene exactly as written on the pages of the confused screenplay. This only serves to make the character’s rash decisions feel more unusual as James never allows herself to deeply emote with the emotional moments which directly affect her character, and never allows us to believe why she would be undertaking an investigation of a community she only became involved with hours earlier. It’s a fault of the screenplay that her sudden connection to the society and its members doesn’t feel tangible – but it’s a fault of James that she doesn’t even attempt to rectify this.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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