THE GUERNSEY LITERARY & POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY
Director: Mike Newell
Screenwriters: Kevin Hood, Thomas Bezucha and Don Roos, based on the eponymous novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Jessica Brown Findlay
Runtime: 124 mins.
Australian release date: 19 April 2018
Previewed at: Palace Norton Street Cinemas, Sydney, on 18 April 2018.
The best-selling book, The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, published in 2008, had a strange genesis: it was formed in the mind’s eye of an American woman, Mary Ann Shaffer, after she made a chance visit to the English Channel island in 1976. She didn’t get around to putting pen to paper, however, until the mid-2000s and by the time her unfinished manuscript was accepted for publication in 2006 she was in failing health. Envisaging that she would be unable to complete the work she called upon her niece, Annie Barrows, to finish it for her because the pair had always been close and Shaffer had relayed the story to Barrows many times. The rest, as they say, is history. In 2008 Shaffer passed away, mere months before the novel’s publication but the book went on to become the number one-selling paperback on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Naturally US producers quickly acquired the film rights but it wasn’t until some years later, when veteran British director Mike Newell (Four Weddings And A Funeral) signed on, that all involved felt they had compiled the right team to bring the movie version of The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society to life, working from a script by Kevin Hood, Thomas Bezucha and Don Roos.
Set mainly on the beautiful island of Guernsey, the story covers the years that the Germans occupied the island during WWII and their immediate aftermath. We’re quickly introduced to the privations the locals had to endure because of the Nazis: firstly, some 80% of the children were evacuated to the mainland prior to the invasion; then, once the invading troops arrived, nightly curfews were established; the islanders’ livestock was sequestered and their home-grown produce plundered; the inhabitants were reduced to growing potatoes to sustain themselves and malnourishment flourished. One night, a small group of neighbours returning home late (thus breaking the curfew), after consuming the sole pig in their possession (also illegal) and imbibing heavily in bootleg gin, came to the notice of their Nazi occupiers. As a few social groups were exempted from the curfew, the friends quickly conjured up the name of a fictitious book club and thus ‘The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society’ was formed. Initially the group was monitored to make sure it wasn’t inciting rebellion but the guard quickly grew bored and soon it was left to its own devices. Once the meetings became regular and more formalised they brought positive results to the members - comfort and camaraderie, moments of solace and escape from their hardships through the world of literature.
Post-war, in 1946, Juliet Ashton (Lily James), a charismatic young writer, receives a letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), a Guernsey farmer seeking her help tracking down a particular book. The request piques her interest in the Society and she decides to pay him a visit, planning to write a newspaper article. Once there she meets the group, a disparate lot made up of Dawsey, Eben Ramsey (Tom Courtenay), the elderly postman and his young grandson Eli (Kit Connor), Amelia Maugery (Penelope Wilton), a widow who’s the matriarch of the group, and Isola Pribby (Katherine Parkinson), the quirky young herbalist who brews the gin. She also learns that another member, Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay), has disappeared but no-one wants to talk about her. As Juliet becomes more involved in their wartime secret, her life begins to change. Meanwhile she is being hounded by her rich American fiancé, Mark (Glen Powell), and her publisher Sidney (Matthew Goode), who are clamouring for her to return to London.
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society is a sobering depiction of life under occupation, beautifully captured by Zac Nicholson’s cinematography. The scenes around the island are simply breathtaking but, in truth, parts of Cornwall, Devon and Buckinghamshire had to stand in for it at times. “Guernsey and Jersey and have become very prosperous in the last 50 years because of the offshore banking industry, and they've changed,” says Newell. “We only found two places that fulfilled the brief of what they might have looked like in the 1940s.” James Merifield’s production design and Charlotte Walter’s costumes recreate the period faithfully and the ensemble cast is excellent. Lily James is mesmerizing and is ably supported by some of Britain’s finest actors, many of whom you’ll recognise from TV series like Doc Martin and Downton Abbey. The film’s main flaw is in the editing; cutting some 15 minutes from it would tighten up the story because, at 124 minutes, it begins to drag in the homestretch.
This is a saga that, while fiction, depicts one of many tragedies that would’ve happened during WWII, a period that destroyed many lives and created many on-going ramifications. Large numbers of people were left damaged by their experiences and in this fine story we are privy to a situation that was entirely created by the consequences of war and its impact on a small community. The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society also carries the message that you don’t necessarily need to follow your fortune in life, that it’s more important to follow your heart, even if the decision will change your life forever.