“It ultimately comes off as something of a bore; always more distant than it lets on and a little more obvious than it realizes.”
by Ken Bakely
Immaculately framed in sweeping wide shots and warm color schemes, Mike Newell’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is as lightly comforting as its quirky title suggests, but never as original in style or perspective. There are long scenes of characters reading out passages from Jane Eyre or Austen, debating them with spirit, and basking in the glow of their camaraderie. The prestige and power of literature is invoked non-stop, but done with little feeling or genuine thoughtfulness. It all winds up a trifle, the kind of movie watched and disposed of immediately. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s something pressing about the manner with which Newell directs the script – what with all his stately exterior shots and smoky interiors – that makes the material fall flat with the unintended juxtaposition between setup and execution.
Consider the way that the movie’s title co-opts that of its in-story namesake. Isolated, we find it amusingly stuffy. But in the confines of the plot, it was borne out of fear and necessity in Guernsey during World War II, when the Nazis occupied the Channel Islands and kept strict regulations on all permitted social interactions. The prologue reveals a handful of neighbors stopped by German soldiers, who demand to know what they are doing together. To explain the fact that they are out past curfew, they claim they are part of a new literary club. The name is pulled together in the moment, and their subsequent meetings allow them an outlet to retain their British patriotism, even as they are surrounded by the enemy. After the war, when this anecdote finds its way to successful author Juliet Ashton (Lily James) through a letter correspondence with handsome Channel Islander Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), she travels to Guernsey to learn more. She tells her publisher (Matthew Goode) that it’s for research for a project, but she has hardly any idea what she will find.
There are many tales among the group, most centered around Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay), a vibrant young woman who vanished after an affair with a Nazi soldier. Guernsey uses this thread as the genesis of Juliet’s excursion into the community, but the film isn’t particularly protective of revealing what happened to Elizabeth, treating the straightforward proto-investigation with a vague sense of disinterest. Flashback scenes slide in and out haphazardly, and though the cast – which includes Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton in supporting roles – capably handles the material, there’s little here for them to actually chew on. The answers come at a predictable pace with predictable conclusions. Even an examination of Juliet’s personal life, as she second guesses her engagement to Mark (Glen Powell), a wealthy American, operates on autopilot. Everything feels like a front for the technical marvels of Zac Nicholson’s cinematography and the quaint period production design.
The film plays lip service down the board: to the passions of its Guernsey-based characters in their wartime resilience, to the secrets Juliet discovers as she figures out what we’re always a few steps ahead of, and to the messages about human relationships and the creative spirit that form its pleasant, if empty conclusion. Guernsey is too flaky for its own good, as the occasional gut punch of a flashback or a crushing dialogue exchange between its talented actors is cast aside for the next preprogrammed plot development. Newell shows us an intricately adorned world, but doesn’t let us live in it. The movie’s intense desires to feel and engage are held back by its utmost concern for thematic simplicity. It ultimately comes off as something of a bore; always more distant than it lets on and a little more obvious than it realizes.