*** out of ****
(for some language, sensuality, adult themes)
Released: August 10, 2018
Runtime: 124 minutes
Directed by: Mike Newell
Starring: Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Katherine Parkinson, Penelope Wilton, Glen Powell, Matthew Goode, Jessica Brown Findlay, Tom Courtenay
If that long, cutesy-quirky film title sounds more like something tailor-made for a book club sensation, well, it was. And now, this beloved post-WWII romance – streaming exclusively on Netflix – is a perfect choice for your movie club, too.
Seriously. If there’s a silver lining to Netflix denying us a big screen theatrical run for this lush-looking slice of cinematic comfort, it’s in the fact that you can make a party of it.
And you should. This story about the power and necessity of community – in the face of tragedy and uncertainty – is an experience better shared than one squeezed in late at night or in isolation on a laptop. Theme your event, too, if you’re particularly ambitious, right down to Potato Peel Pies as your festive culinary centerpiece (along with an ample backup of tissues, natch).
The charming pedigree in this adaptation of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society goes beyond the source material co-authored by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It’s in the cast (including four Downton Abbey alum) and its director, too: Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). His Best Picture nominee Four Weddings and a Funeral and period piece chick-flick Enchanted April prove to be artful antecedents for Guernsey’s giddy-yet-earnest travelogue love story.
Following a 1941 prologue, the story picks up in 1946 London. There, young author Juliet Ashton (Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) is enjoying the success of her latest World War II anthology, but the humorous tone of those anecdotes and the contrived pen name under which she wrote them masks Juliet’s own wartime trials, ones that still haunt her. The publisher wants more of the same, understandably, but that fiction-verses-reality disconnect has squelched any inspiration.
It’s sparked serendipitously, however, when Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman, The Age of Adaline), a stranger from Guernsey, an island off the coast of Normandy in the English Channel. He’s come into possession of a book that Juliet had previously owned and now asks her for more recommendations by the same author (oh, the lengths one had to go to in the pre-internet age).
Before you know it, that single postal request evolves into an ongoing correspondence of soul-connecting kismet.
Adding to the intrigue is that Dawsey is part of a book club that formed during the war, partly as a protection against rigors of the island’s Nazi occupation. Fascinated, Juliet travels to Guernsey to meet the society members. She hopes to write an article about them and, more coyly, to quench the mystery of who this Dawsey Adams really is, and what he’s like.
Her crush is also a bit star-crossed by the fact that Juliet has just said yes to a marriage proposal – from a really good guy, too. Yes, it’s all the very stuff that popular chick-lit melodramas are made of.
But there’s more at work here than just those standard soapy trappings.
A mystery surrounds the whereabouts of the society’s founder, a woman who’s been missing since being arrested by the Germans during the war. Juliet’s impulse to seek answers triggers anxieties in the reticent locals. Still traumatized in the wake of war, they’d rather leave their raw grief dormant. Meanwhile, as the connection between Dawsy and Juliet grows, she keeps secrets of her own (along with her engagement ring that stays hidden in her purse).
Yet along with that British repression, there’s also warm, ebullient connection.
We see this across the ensemble, but perhaps its most rewarding form comes in Juliet’s friendship with the group’s shyest member, Isola (Katherine Parkinson). A quiet but sweet spinster, Isola has been denied true love on this small, remote island, as well as any sort of sisterly bond. She finds that with Juliet. Along with giggles and laughter, they share some of the film’s deepest sentiments and tender moments.
Lily James and Michiel Huisman make the central, burgeoning romance palpable, even in its chaste form. Yes, Huisman strikes the hunky profile of emotional availability that has sold many a Harlequin paperback, but his performance is genuine, not a pandering pose.
James, who’s title turn in Cinderella was a revelation, continues to impress and grow here, evoking Juliet’s conflicted and swirling passions so fully at times that you can almost feel her heart pounding through her chest, about to burst.
Perhaps the greatest gift that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society gives us, aside from the complete satisfaction that it provides or the design of destiny that it affirms, is how it conveys the power of the written word. Not only in books, but in letters.
They create a connection so deep because the words are so considered. It is from this kind of writing – whether born from an author’s mind or our own hearts – that our true selves are revealed, and shared.
That’s what’s lacking in our texts, our tweets, our posts, and our e-mails. In this age of social media that is supposed to connect us like never before, the ease and speed of it all is often like candy; sweet but not nourishing. It leaves our souls hungry.
It’s why we connect with stories like this, in which Dawsey can write to Juliet what we’re all needing to hear, to say, and to believe in:
“We were all hungry, but it was Elizabeth who realized our true starvation – for connection. The company of other people. For fellowship.”
It’s words like that, which you won’t find in a tweet, that send Juliet’s heart atwitter.