Sunday, 22 April 2018

Review: The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (SPOILERS)
Cert: 12A / 124 mins / Dir. Mike Newell / Trailer

This wasn't made for me. I say that about an increasing number of films of course, but probably best to get it out of the way now. I knew this wasn't made for me long before I sat down in screen 1 of course. But when I found myself the youngest person in the auditorium, watching the flag-waving trailer for Dambusters 75 and Diane Keaton sliding towards being offered gigs doing life-insurance adverts, it was a done deal.

So imagine my utter delight*1 at the first scene of Mike Newell's The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, beginning on the island during occupation in the Second World War, where the drunk Tom Courtenay character vomits onto the boots of a German officer while my surrounding audience chortled heartily. The film's very first gag (no pun intended) bears all the hallmarks of Brexit: The Movie, a simplified, rose-tinted, fictionalised*2 version of history that few involved are old enough to remember at all*3. And so it plays for the entirety of the first act and well into the second.

After this opening we jump to 1946, in the immediate aftermath of the war. Lily James plays Juliet Ashton, a london-based writer travelling to a fishing village on Guernsey after hearing about a secretive book-club used to keep up morale during the occupation. Once there, she finds that not all of the inhabitants are ready to be open about those years, and that the cobbled streets hold darker secrets. Meanwhile, Juliet begins to fall for the man who initially wrote to her about the Society, after finding her name in a book she once owned. Everything's slightly sepia-tinted and there's a piano and light-orchestral score. You get the picture.

Credit where it's due, Lily James leads the ensemble cast well, gives the clunky script her absolute best and is always a pleasure to watch (even if she's essentially reprising her role from Darkest Hour). However, Lily's frequently required to walk around muttering to herself and to read everything aloud, so certain is the director that the audience needs to be spoon-fed whatever remains of any subtext. Meanwhile, Katherine Parkinson seems to have been given the script from another film. Again, she's always fun to be around but her boozy, spiritualist character becomes more disparate from the setting as the run-time increases. Penelope Wilton is turned up to 10 for the duration, her wild-eyed mistrust of anyone from the mainland sure to be a hit with island communities everywhere, and Matthew Goode appears to be playing a role which has been written specifically for Jeremy Irons.

Despite the wardrobe department and set-dresser's best efforts, none of what we see feels like it's happening in 1946, but in a modern-day facsimile. The shadow of this artifice is always in-shot, with the performances spirited but ultimately a bit pantomime. There is a decent story buried beneath the layers of smugness and sanitised post-war defiance and denial, though. The strand about Jessica Brown Findlay's Elizabeth, her affair with an occupying soldier and the child they had deserves its own movie, quite honestly, suggesting that if this one took itself a bit more seriously it would have much more to offer.

The main problem (ie not just me saying "I didn't enjoy this") is that the screenplay is never quite sure which plate it should be spinning. You can have the story about how books can bring people together and inspire during dark times, you can have the story about the islander who fell in love with an enemy soldier and how their relationship was doomed from the start, or you can have the story about the wide-eyed outsider who goes off to a close-knit community and falls in love with the pig farmer*4. But choose one. The gear-change between each strand is jarring as it effectively becomes a different film each time.

Despite moments of demonstrable heart, this is nowhere near the movie it could be. 30% charming, 70% infuriating. I never thought I'd write these words, but in the hands of Richard Curtis, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society could have been quite wonderful. But it wasn't, and it isn't.

Behind the closing credits we get an audio-track of the cast reading passages from famous novels, an attempt to remind the audience that the story was about books and convince them that they've watched something well-written.

Best bit: The start of the movie where the fledgling book-club all bond together by getting pissed on homemade gin and killing a pig.

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
This is Their Finest in a car crash with Suite Française.

If you want a story about the power of the written word in a wartime environment, try The Book Thief

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It'll be on the £3 shelf at Asda in no time at all.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
There's a chance of that, yes.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Republic Captain Maoi Madakor is in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Sarcasm. [ BACK ]

*2 There's absolutely nothing wrong with historical fiction, of course. Most movies of this ilk can't wait to get the 'based on true events' card onto the screen, but not here. The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is adapted from a bestselling novel, which is to say, it is made-up. And while that doesn't necessarily preclude the themes of the work being based in reality, this particular film is so far removed from the reference section that it wasn't even filmed on Guernsey. And watching the tourist board trying to spin that one is, quite frankly, fucking hilarious. [ BACK ]

*3 Although unlike Brexit, this movie has the bonus of at least being an optional pursuit.
Yeah, bit of politics there. Beiß mich. [ BACK ]

*4 With Juliet being a struggling writer, the script builds to a moment in the third act where she finds herself newly-single and back home from the island, when the inspiration finally strikes home for her to write her masterpiece (in montage-form, naturally). While she does this primarily for her own satisfaction, it's nonetheless well-received by the island natives she's grown fond of, in particular the one who still holds her heart. And it's at that point that I wished I'd just watched Forgetting Sarah Marshall instead... [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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