Mike Newell made his name with a story of lovable English eccentrics in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and his latest mines a familiar seam of hot-toddy Britannia. Based on the posthumous novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society stars Lily James as Juliet Ashton, a writer on the promotional hustings in 1946 London. With a commission from The Times to write about reading, Juliet decides to visit Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands invaded by the Germans during the war, after receiving a letter from a dishy pig farmer (Michiel Huisman) about the origins of a local book club under the occupation.
Buoyed by a reliably appealing star turn from James, this handsome tearjerker mostly sidesteps the tweeness of its title to become, somehow, both an old-fashioned romance and a detective story trumpeting gender equality.
A return to form for Mike Newell.
In addition to its leading lady, Downton Abbey alumni here include Penelope Wilton and Jessica Brown Findlay as an islander whose wartime disappearance Juliet spends much of the film trying to unravel. That show’s fans and members of book clubs everywhere should boost the film’s prospects when StudioCanal releases it in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand later this month. Stateside rights have been snapped up by Netflix.
Newell kicks things off in 1941, on a starry night atop the cliffs of Guernsey. Four silhouettes are drunkenly zig-zagging home after dark, in violation of the curfew imposed by the Germans. They’ve been feasting on roast pig hidden from the invaders, who have confiscated the island’s livestock to feed their soldiers. But the group’s roving is interrupted by the Krauts, with dogs and lights, who demand to know why they’ve been congregating. The quickest-thinking of the bunch, Elizabeth McKenna (Brown Findlay), proffers a literary society, and the society’s name is garlanded by the notoriously inedible dish invented by the eldest of the group, the local postmaster Eben (Tom Courtenay).
Cut to London, a year after the war, where Juliet and her publisher Sidney (Matthew Goode) are attending a reading of her book, a collection of lightly humorous stories by which she’s faintly embarrassed; a commercial sop after her first, a critical biography of Anne Bronte, flopped. When she’s not attending to promotional duties, Juliet spends most of her time at jazz clubs with her GI boyfriend Mark (Glen Powell, carving out a post-Hidden Figures niche as a midcentury American who thinks he’s more charming than he is) and inspecting real estate with best friend Sidney. Stepping over the threshold of one high-ceilinged apartment, Juliet is assailed by a flashback to the bomb-ravaged home in which her parents were killed. So when the letter comes from Guernsey, the chance to get out of the capital is irresistible. She accepts Mark’s offer of marriage moments before scooting over the channel, where she immediately runs into the broad-shouldered Dawsey (Huisman), kitted out by costume designer Charlotte Walter in an array of figure-hugging knitted sweats.
Newell and his editor Paul Tothill (Atonement) flit back and forth between the wartime occupation and 1946, in which the book club, originally spirited into being to placate the Germans, is still going strong. In addition to Dawsey and Eben, the members include Eben’s grandson, Eli (Kit Connor), who was sent to the mainland days before the Germans arrived; Isola (The IT Crowd‘s Katherine Parkinson), a flame-haired pre-hippie fond of reciting from Jane Eyre and making her own gin; and the older Amelia (a very fine Wilton), whose ambivalent attitude toward Juliet is shaded by her grief over the death of a pregnant daughter, as well as the disappearance of Brown Findlay’s Elizabeth, the daughter’s best friend. Elizabeth left behind a child, and the girl’s parentage — and the circumstances of her mother’s departure from Guernsey — is the secret that Juliet cannot pierce.
The history of occupation and collaboration on the Channel Islands has been little explored on film, and the sight of German soldiers marching down a very English street as the townsfolk huddle in doorways feels almost science-fictional. Juliet’s puritanical landlady accuses Elizabeth of being more than a little friendly with the enemy, while local pest Eddie Meares (Andy Gathergood) is shunned by all for his role in her disappearance. The screenplay by Kevin Hood (Becoming Jane), Thomas Bezucha (The Family Stone) and Don Roos (Marley & Me) toggles between flashbacks and Juliet’s present-day sleuthing, and the fate of one heroine becomes the other’s obsession. Members of the book club help Juliet to fill in the blanks, with voiceovers from each narrating sections of the film.
The group’s syllabus seems heavy on the Brontes, but the windswept romance at this story’s heart is less than intemperate. James makes Juliet’s conflictedness compelling, especially in a climactic scene back in London in which her nerves almost overwhelm her, but Huisman doesn’t have much to play other than rugged politeness. Though with a chest the width of a fireplace, he doesn’t really need to. Lensing by DP Zac Nicholson (The Death of Stalin) is slickly expansive, soaring over island cliffs (actually Cornwall and Devon), while production designer James Merifield and costume designer Charlotte Walter are refreshingly unafraid of color in evoking the 40s. Closing credits unspool over spirited book club discussion, with Courtney’s reading of Treasure Island an apt highlight.
Production companies: Blueprint Pictures, Mazur / Kaplan Company
Cast: Lily James, Glen Powell, Michiel Huisman, Tom Courtenay, Matthew Goode, Jessica Brown Findlay, Penelope Wilton, Kit Connor, Katherine Parkinson
Director: Mike Newell
Screenwriters: Thomas Bezucha, Don Roos, Kevin Hood
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Mitchell Kaplan, Paula Mazur
Director of photography: Zac Nicholson
Production designer: James Merifield
Costume designer: Charlotte Walter
Editor: Paul Tothill
Music: Alexandra Harwood
Casting: Susie Figgis