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.