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August 2018

MovieGeek: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

It's not the longest title for an English-language film, but it's sure a mouthful and a touch cutesy. That meant I was going to scroll on by, but after I caught the trailer, I decided to give it a shot. After all, it's about a writer.

If you're a Downton Abbey fan, it's essentially a reunion, with four or five of the show's actors meeting in postwar England. I've never watched it, so that factor was lost on me. Instead I was treated to a pleasant story that falls just two steps short of enough emotional connection to make it truly good.

The premise couldn't be simpler: a member of the titular society writes to Juliet, a young writer in London (who is inexplicably successful and famous-ish), and after a brief correspondence, she decides to go visit the Guernsey society with the thought of writing their story. Apparently this is Very Far by British standards, but Americans would laugh. Her fiance Mark acts as though she's going to the ends of the earth, but Google Maps says it's about a six-hour voyage (including the ferry). So... St. Louis to Kansas City?

The Society's story is fairly interesting, set against the occupation of the British islands during World War II, but if you're expecting the British Resistance and insurgent spies, you're watching the wrong movie. We get the backstory in flashbacks, expertly woven into Juliet's visit. Of course she meets a handsome fella, and of course she uncovers the tragic tale at the center of the Society's formation, and of course there is an inner journey to be made from learning their history. 

There's also hints that Juliet is lost in London, with a post-traumatic flashback and dithering about whether to marry her nice, vaguely condescending American fiance. Dawsey, the handsome fella of Guernsey, provides a nice counterpart. Of course he does.

Here's the thing: throughout the film, it seems like it skates close to real emotional depth, and then pulls back. Juliet's PTSD episode makes her far more interesting a character in the opening chapters... then it sort of disappears and never happens again. She is best friends with her publisher, who is later revealed to be gay, and neither ever appears to suffer from the rampant sexism and homophobia that would have hampered or crippled them in the publishing world of the late 1940s. (More on this in a minute.)

For a moment we feel as though Juliet is skating into early postwar feminism, as Fiance Mark makes offhand comments about "letting" her pursue her passion. But no, the real reason she isn't wearing his engagement ring is not her supposed concern about Victorian marriage ideals, but because she's thinking twice about marrying him. 

Meanwhile the Society (full of wonderful British characters) is consumed with the fate of one of their members, arrested and shipped off by the Germans during the war. The missing Elizabeth is really the most interesting character in the film, and I found myself wishing for a movie centered on her. Most of what we know of her happens off-screen in the past - and it's all just a little bit tempered.

We hear of the terrifying acts of the Germans, but they never show it. There's a German soldier, who became their friend. He's supposedly a nice guy. So why is he fighting for the Nazis? It's never said. Even a single line about compulsory service would have added some measure of depth to his character, but the movie never goes there. We understand Character X did something terrible, but there is no real consequence - and how he supposedly betrayed his fellow villagers? Why? It's just sort of ... there.

And the movie never addresses its own anachronisms. Apart from one snide innkeeper, there's no explanation for how a woman could bear a child out of wedlock without anyone in a rural 1940s village blinking an eye; for how Juliet can be independently wealthy and free to spend months researching a book without publishing a thing or doing a single signing... it's nearly ludicrous in a time when women could not write word one without being shunted to "the ladies' page" of the newspaper to discuss tea and weddings. More than two decades later, women would still be writing under gender-neutral pseudonyms just to get published. And I cringed as she casually tells someone about her publisher's orientation, as though that wouldn't be enough to get him shunned or killed in the 1940s.

In the book, Juliet actually didn't say yes to Mark; she asked him to wait, because she had once been engaged before and broke it off when she found out her future husband intended to box her books in the attic. For a woman of literature, it would have been a hellish marriage. Mark is better - condescending, indulging in her little whims - but ultimately her story is one of a woman trying to find her true vocation that has nothing to do with love and everything to do with art, passion and purpose. 

But Guernsey isn't satisfied with that kind of arc. In the end, it becomes all about which man she picks. That was the biggest disappointment.

I didn't hate it. There's a strong theme throughout about the power of literature to transform and heal as well as entertain, and that's a theme I can enjoy. It's amusing, and well-acted by Lily James as Juliet and the assorted Britishers playing the Society. Extra credit, however, goes to Michiel Huisman as Dawsey, who could have simply remained "hot guy providing moral quandary for Our Heroine" and phoned it in. Instead, he plays a complex and troubled man, doing the right thing for the right reasons and carrying a lot of pain behind his hotness.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society won't change your world or draw you to tears. But if you're looking for an amusing piece to while away a couple of hours, you could do worse on Netflix.

MovieGeek: Christopher Robin

If you're looking for surprises, Christopher Robin won't provide it. But it is a sweet and endearing story with a moral you can see a mile away - and subtext you won't. 

You only need to see the trailers to know that Christopher Robin presumes that the titular boy of the A.A. Milne stories grew up to be an ordinary middle-management businessman who forgot how to play and be a child, passing along his seriousness to his own child, set to study and "work" without fun. There's a slight hint that serving in the war might have led to this seriousness, but the movie doesn't get that deep into it (other than one quick "war" montage that might be a touch unsettling for younger ones, but nothing too graphic for most viewers).

So naturally, Christopher Robin must learn to laugh and play, to "do nothing" as Pooh himself reminds him regularly. There's a problem with this moral, which I'll get to in a bit. 

The best parts of the film are the brilliantly recreated "stuffed animals" come to life in and out of the Hundred Acre Wood. In a nice twist, anyone can see and hear them, which leads to some delightful silliness, and less "Christopher Robin's gone mad" nonsense than I was expecting.

As usual, the most popular characters get the most play, with Pooh, Tigger, Piglet and Eeyore eclipsing Kanga, Roo, Rabbit and Owl (which is too bad, because I was looking forward to an underused Peter Capaldi as Rabbit). But frankly, my favorite parts of the movie were "any time Eeyore is talking." I adore Eeyore, and he was hilariously dour.

There's plenty of sentiment, particularly with child Christopher Robin's departure in the beginning for boarding school and "growing up." A softer soul than mine would have to pull out the hankies at that point (and Mr. CultureGeek definitely did). There's also some serious gloom, which I found interesting - work as a place of hiding from real life, seriousness as code for depression, and when viewed in that light, it seems a bit overly simplistic to posit that "doing nothing" is the best way to overcome it. 

This leads me to my main quibble: The entire plot hinges on Christopher Robin skipping yet another family weekend so he can work, apparently a habit for him. It's the final straw for his wife (a criminally underutilized Hayley Atwell) and the child who wants only to read and play with him. The entire movie depends on "priorities, Christopher!" 

Only... the movie makes it clear that if he does not do this task set before him, his entire division will be shut down. All the people who work for him will lose their jobs. (Their names are a mishmash of the actors who voiced the characters in earlier Pooh films, but unlike my suspicions while watching, they are not the actors voicing the gang in this film. Some of the personalities will seem a tad familiar, however...)

We meet them, and it is made clear that they are good, hardworking people... so it's hard for us to cheer on the moral of the story. Sure, Christopher Robin needs to lighten up and pay attention to his family, but do hundreds of people and the handful we meet need to go on the bread lines because Christopher decided to go on holiday for the weekend? It was a mistake to put other people's futures on the line for Christopher's Big Choice, in my opinion. 


It's the balance between real life and the amusements of childhood that we are meant to strive for, and the movie does manage to tie this up in a sane manner that underscores a sly bit of 21st-century socioeconomic equality. I appreciated it, though I know it made some growl, because we can't have nice things. That's the subtext I wasn't expecting, and it would take too many spoilers to expound on how important that moral is - more important than "remember childhood and take time to hold a red balloon and smile," frankly. 

Still, we don't go to movies like Christopher Robin to examine economic class equality or the philosophy of a workaholic world. We go to watch Ewan McGregor perfectly carry an entire film acting with CGI stuffed animals so well-drawn I could forget they weren't real, and brilliantly voiced by Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett and others. You can't underestimate the skill in creating the characters - at one point Eeyore is soaked, and I swear he looked soaked and moved as though his stuffing were soggy. I forgot he was CGI, folks. And I don't think anyone failed to smile when Cummings' Pooh first spoke. 

It's a charming, sweet film heavy on nostalgia, and should make fans of the books and the Disney films happy. And if it reminds you to buy a red balloon and walkabout with the kids in the wood sometime, all the better.