1946. Writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James) receives a letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), a pig farmer on the island of Guernsey – which was occupied by the Germans during the war. Their exchange begins with a request for a book, and ends with Juliet travelling to Guernsey to meet Dawsey’s local book club: the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Once she meets Dawsey’s disparate group of readers, Juliet stumbles upon an unspoken secret between them and strives to uncover what it is.
Based on the 2008 novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society sees veteran director Mike Newell in fully-blown ‘heartwarming British drama’ mode. It is an broadly engaging film but also a terribly predictable one. It has a charming tone that borders – and regularly crosses into – the irritatingly twee. It has its requisite cast of pleasant English eccentrics, not to mention an inevitable love triangle, and is ultimately much too familiar to really make an impact of its own. For a cynical viewer, it will easily be too much of a sweet thing to enjoy.
If, however, you are not that cynical, and you enjoy a good cast of English eccentrics with a healthy dose of romance, there is a good chance Guernsey will be right up your alley. It may tell an overly stereotypical tale, but it tells it well and does so with a fine cast. Lily James is delightful as Juliet, and the book club is well populated with the likes of Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay and Katherine Parkinson (a particular highlight, playing a gin-making, constantly tipsy paranormal obsessive).
The film is also very effective in presenting an intriguing mystery regarding the missing sixth member of the society: Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Finlay), who was there when the society was founded, but is absent without explanation by the time Juliet arrives. It is blatantly artificial, with the film teasing out one revelation per conversation throughout the film, but at the same time it is admittedly very effective. Before long you are as invested in uncovering Elizabeth’s story as Juliet is.
The one place where the film really does struggle is in Juliet’s love triangle, which is the sort of dreadful storyline that requires one character to inexplicably change personality and motivation in order to hit the desired conclusion. It feels hollow and unconvincing as a result, and weakens the climax terribly.
Great use is made of the Guernsey setting to give the story something of a fresh perspective and fertile narrative territory. As noted by characters in the film, the wounds of World War II are still much fresher than they are for the mainland. The occupation, and Elizabeth’s disappearance, has created deep scars yet to heal. The locations are beautifully captured (albeit mostly shot in Devon and Cornwall, apparently), and the film is richly costumed and photographed. It is regularly funny, sometimes sad, and ultimately rather enjoyable stuff. For some viewers it will probably grate a little, but for others it will likely be very satisfying. In all honesty I think from the title and the marketing most viewers will know in advance to which part of the audience they belong.