Or to give the movie its full title, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”.
Awkward title, supremely enjoyable movie. This is one for those who prefer romantic English period pieces such as “Downton Abbey”, “Brideshead Revisited”, “Sense and Sensibility”, and the like. In other words, good, solid stories, fine, reliable English actors, no bad language, no sex (or if there is, it’s offscreen and/or very discreet), no nudity, and any violence is also discreet and/or offscreen. Such is the “Potato Peel Pie” movie also.
Set in 1946, just after the end of World War II, the movie is adapted from a best-selling novel of the same name authored by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Juliet Ashton (nicely played by Lily James) is a successful, London-based writer in search of a new project. She has a handsome, American Air Force officer-fiancé, Mark (played in clean-cut, jut-jawed style by Glen Powell), and a patient, understanding publisher, Sidney (played by ever-reliable Matthew Goode). Juliet is contacted by a member of the Guernsey Literary etc Society (I’ll just call it “the Society” for brevity’s sake), seeking information about a hard-to-find book. The Society is a group of book-lovers on the island of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands just recently liberated from Nazi German occupation.
Thinking there might be material for an article or book about the German occupation of the island, Juliet journeys there to meet the Society. They are happy for her to give a guest speech at their meeting, but when she tries to interview them about their lives under the Germans, they suddenly clam up. There is a dark mystery here, something to do with the German occupation. Juliet resolves to find out the truth. Is handsome, taciturn farmer Dawsey Adams (played by Dutch actor Michiel Huisman) really the father of cute, blonde child Kit? Why was her mother Elizabeth (played by Jessica Brown Findlay), whom we only ever meet in flashbacks, arrested and deported by the Germans? Will Juliet’s investigations alienate her from the Islanders whom she is increasingly bonding with emotionally?
This story really operates on several levels. First, it is about Juliet’s efforts to revive her career after the war. Then, there is her relationship with Mark: is her engagement to him imperilled by her growing relationship with Dawsey? Then there is the whole vexed issue of the Islanders’ collaboration, or lack of it, with the German occupiers. Who helped them, and who didn’t? How does this affect the relationships among the Islanders themselves? This underlines a basic issue in time of war: how do we, or can we, retain our basic, common decency as humans in a time of armed conflict? These issues are effectively tackled and played out in the film.
Apart from an engrossing story, the film is immeasurably boosted by its personnel. Able direction is by that fine and prolific English director, Mike Newell, most famous for “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. Clever editing reduces a multi-layered tale to only a little over two hours’ screen time. I have already commented on the solid performances by the actors playing the major characters. Lily James adds to her very creditable performances in works such as “Downton Abbey” and “Darkest Hour”. As supporting members of the Society, we have excellent performances from the likes of Penelope Wilton (“Downton Abbey” and the “Marigold Hotel” movies), Katherine Parkinson (she was, amongst many other roles, the doc’s receptionist/secretary in the early series of “Doc Martin”), and the veteran English actor Tom Courtenay who has been around since the 1960s, when I remember him playing a young Russian revolutionary in that great film by David Lean, “Doctor Zhivago”. “Potato Peel Pie” certainly delivers with a quality cast who know their business backwards.
Exterior locations are beautifully filmed, so the background scenery in this movie is delightful. However, if Internet scuttlebutt is to be believed, none of the film was actually shot in the Channel Islands, but on the English mainland. Possibly because of budgetary or logistical considerations, or possibly because the collaborationist elements of the story still arouse sensitivities on the islands? No matter; the result is still a visual feast.
I have few, if any, faults to find with the film. The only slightly jarring note for me was an ending that I thought was too schmaltzy and a bit contrived. But then, I am a cynic when it comes to love and romance. Fans of romantic movies will probably love the ending and deride me as a curmudgeonly old bachelor! So be it.
I loved the film as did my female companion. Most of the audience at the session I attended would have been over 50, which is probably the expected and targeted demographic. I am giving it a very high rating: 4-and-three-quarter stars.