Usually I would wait until a few lines into this to state a simple and unfortunate fact about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This movie is a complete mess that in search of being poignant instead comes off as emotionally manipulative. The whole film collapses under the weight of its own seriousness while ignoring some interesting elements that could have saved it, or at least made the two-hour journey sting just a little less.
The film tells the story of Juliet Ashton (Lily James), a writer living in London following the 2nd world war. Having just found fame due to a character she created, Juliet is looking for inspiration about what comes next. A chance correspondence with Dawsey Adams (Michael Huisman), a member of the society piques her interest and she finds herself travelling to Guernsey to learn more about the oddly named society and the members ordeal during the war.
Some might honestly be surprised by my assertions once watching this film as most would latch onto the films perfectly serviceable love story between Juliet and Dawsey and enjoy themselves. In fact I usually am more than happy sitting back and watching a good romantic comedy, or a bad one, or a romance in general. However, this film strives to tell a deeper story through flashbacks to Guernsey’s occupation by the Nazis, one of stoic rebellion and the way family can get you through the hardest of times.
This dual storyline is where The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (forgive me for writing TGLPPPS from now on, that title is unfortunately long) runs into its first major road block. In recounting the story of how the society came to be Juliet becomes a far less interesting character and her journey in Guernsey is infinitely less interesting. Also problematic is the fact that this tale tapers off towards the end in favour of the aforementioned romance with the tales more shocking and important of moments being glossed over in favour of a happy ending that is tainted by a sense of the incomplete.
The sense of unanswered questions looms over Juliet and the viewer and while she comes out satisfied we are left spinning our wheels in the mud, stuck waiting for something that never comes. Not only that but the film is populated by interesting characters that are only fleshed out enough so that they can add colour to someone elses story. Veteran actors like Penelope Wilton and Tom Courtenay are excellent additions to the society but they are unfortunately defined by their membership to it and not by who they are as people.
In fact the whole film is populated by characters designed entirely to add colour to Juliet, a character so paper-thin that I can imagine her character description being ‘perfectly nice but unexceptional young woman with undeniable charisma, think Lily James’. Director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Four Weddings and a Funeral) does an admirable job of telling a dry story well but his direction lacks any flourishes. The film plods along resigned to tell its story but never striving for anything more than it is. You could argue there is something admirable about that but then again you probably shouldn’t.
If anything the film is filled with little disappointments as plot points are introduced, then dumped without a moment’s hesitation. An idea of hope the people of the island seem to cling to is never conveyed on-screen, Juliet never quite lives up to what the film or its characters think of her and the past is remembered but without the detail these people give to it. It’s a film of half measures and if it had just tried to push itself it could have been so much more, even great. Instead it’s just like the Potato Peel Pie, pretty distasteful and utterly pointless.