Main Cast: Jessica Brown Findlay, Tom Courtenay
Director: Mike Newell
We have finally crossed the Pacific and reached inhabited parts again. The route to India would take us through the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra but Captain Drew feels it is wise that we avoid there what with Krakatau acting up. I remember the dangers of Krakatau all too well as I had a small part in that lovely disaster epic, Krakatoa: East of Java some years ago. I played a lovely native girl who had a torrid affair with Brian Keith in the middle of a lava flow before dying at the end of a wonderful tsunami water ballet. I haven’t seen the film for many years but the last time I caught it on the late late show while doing some night time ironing, all of my scenes seemed to have been cut. Anyway, with the need to turn north prematurely, the Normitania found itself sailing into the Gulf of Thailand. I made a snap decision. We would not sail on to India, but rather take inspiration from the gentle Thai people and so we made a course to the port of Bangkok.
I had the crew send word ahead to the government that an important American celebrity would be shortly arriving and to please inform his highness King Rama X as I would be expecting a royal welcome at the dock. I also decided that I had better prepare a little entertainment for the public and press who would be sure to throng the pier as we tied up. I found an old parachute in a storage locker, back from when Normy had tried to use the yacht in a failed attempt at parasailing around Marina del Rey. I cut a neckline, a couple of armholes, tied it appropriately with some spare marine cording and soon had a very chic 19th century ball gown. The PA system will play a karaoke track of Shall We Dance?, abetted by the three Miguels who are a passable mariachi combo in their off hours, and I shall do my best Mrs. Anna for the adoring masses as Captain Drew deftly maneuvers The Normitania into its berth.
All the arrangements being completed, I still had a few hours before we were due to arrive so I retired to the lounge to watch a film while awaiting landfall. My choice was something of which I had not previously heard: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. As it takes place in the Channel Islands of Britain, and we’re currently steaming past a number of lovely little archipelagos, I figured it might be a good match for the day. A perusal of the online description showed some familiar names in the cast and suggested it might be one of those regional slice of life dramedies that the British film industry has been turning out for decades, so I settled in for a look.
Our story begins on the Island of Guernsey, one of the group of islands just off the coast of France still belonging to England and known as the Channel Islands for their position in the English Channel. (Jersey, Alderney and Sark are the other major inhabited islands in the group). In the early 1940s, the German army occupied the islands, the only part of Britain to be captured by the Germans, and the islanders were subject to years of privation and mistreatment. In 1941, a little group of islanders, who have been celebrating by feasting on an illegal pig (farm animals and foodstuffs having been confiscated by the Germans leaving the islanders little to eat besides potatoes), are trying to sneak home past the German guards after curfew. They are caught and have to quickly invent a reason for their being out late and so they tell the guards they have been at a meeting of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This requires them to register the group with the authorities and start to have meetings as they know they are being watched. The members include Eben, the postmaster who drinks a little too much (Tom Courtenay); Isola (Katherine Parkinson), the local herbalist and moonshiner; Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay), a free spirit looking for a cause and resistance to the authorities; Dawsey (Michael Huisman), a hunky young farmer; and Amelia (Penelope Wilton), an aging no-nonsense matron grieving her losses. Fast forward five years: the war is now over and Dawsey, who has come into possession of a copy of Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia that once belonged to author Juliet Ashton (Lily James) writes to her asking if she might have any other books by the same author that she could send to the group. Juliet gets a copy of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and sends it off.
Juliet has written several bestselling novels of Britain in wartime and is restless. She has a drip of an American fiancé (Glen Powell), a fey publisher (Matthew Goode) and a nagging feeling that she needs something more in her life. When she is asked to write an article for The Times Literary Supplement on the importance of reading, she thinks of the society and off she goes to Guernsey to meet them. What was to be a weekend away becomes more and more extended as she falls under the spell of the island and the islanders and starts to piece together what happened to them during the war that caused them to form a loving, protective family of choice under the privations of war. Research is done, secrets are uncovered, and the romantic plot, that becomes apparent twenty minutes in, eventually reaches a satisfactory resolution.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is directed by Mike Newell who has proved himself a master of this sort of material earlier in his career with Enchanted April and Four Weddings and a Funeral. He’s detoured in the last few years into bigger budgets such as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Prince of Persia but he’s much better at small, intimate ensemble pieces and the material fits his sensibilities very well. The film is very much in a vein with the Ealing Studio comedies of the late 40s and 50s such as Whiskey Galore and comes from a path of descent that also includes such fare as The Horse’s Mouth, Widow’s Peak, and, in more recent years, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. If you’ve enjoyed any of these titles, you’ll enjoy this one. Newell uses his location of the remote island well and it, in many ways, becomes a major character in the story with its steep hills and cliffs descending into the dazzling waters surrounding it.
All of the performers are outstanding from old pros Wilton and Courtenay to relative newcomers Lily James and Michael Huisman. Each sketches in a fully realized human being quickly and with reverent affection for his or her foibles. None of these characters is heroic. They are all simply human. The structure of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, with Juliet peeling back layer after layer of secrecy and wartime psychological damage, allows each of the major players at least one riveting scene when he or she gets to explain another piece of the puzzle. Katherine Parkison as the slightly dotty Isola and Penelope Wilton as the grieving Amelia get the showiest moments but everyone has at least one chance to really shine.
Ultimately, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is sweet, but leavened with enough tragedy to keep it from ever becoming saccharine. One leaves with a respect for the islanders, an uplift from a happy ending, and a wish to visit the Channel Islands oneself to see the vistas and to meet a resourceful and resilient people.
Bombed flat. Book tour. Cocktail dates. Gratuitous drunken vomiting. Evacuated children. Dried herbs. Gratuitous sanctimonious landlady. Falling roof tiles. Practically inedible pie. Wharf meeting.
Originally from Seattle Washington, land of mist, coffee and flying salmon, Mrs. Norman Maine sprang to life, full grown like Athena, from Andy’s head during a difficult period of life shortly after his relocation to Alabama.