‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’: The Victorian Values Review

It’s a mouthful. I’ve been shortening it to Guernsey – because a lot of this film is about Guernsey, and its experiences during WWII – but I was delighted when the girl at the box office told me that some people have been asking for tickets to ‘The Potato Movie’. Come on guys, Peter Dutton’s a long way off getting a biopic.

First up, as always, a trailer:

This particular film is a difficult one to talk about without spoilers, but golly there’s a few of them in the trailer, anyway. Part of the issue, of course, on basing your movie on a bestselling book (in this case, the 2008 novel of the same name) is that you want book fans to know that the key scenes and lines they love are in there. Nonetheless, the trailer could have dropped a little of the content and still been effective.

The movie starts thusly: Juliet Ashton (Lily James) is a successful writer in London, shortly after the end of WWII. She’s starting to become slightly disillusioned with the explosion of partying that has taken over London society, but is having a damn good time with her American diplomat beau, Mark. Her publisher Sidney (my boyfriend Matthew Goode) would be pretty darn happy if she’d just start her next book. Unexpectedly she received a letter from a pig farmer from the island of Guernsey named Dawsey Adams, asking for a book hookup for a group he’s part of – the titular Society. The story of the group’s origin (and let me reassure you – the name’s a gag) draws Juliet in to a correspondence, with her eventual decision to travel to Guernsey to meet this infamous group. Once she arrives, she becomes drawn in to their lives and the tales of what happened when Guernsey was under German occupation during the war.

I was lucky enough to be recommended the book by a friend many years ago, and was very excited when rumours broke in 2013 (yes, five years ago) that Michelle Dockery had been offered the lead, as I thought she would be perfect. To make it clear how long this movie has been in development hell – it was apparently initially intended to be a vehicle for Kate Winslet, and in 2013, Simon Curtis was attached to direct. Although Mike Newell ended up tapped to direct, the movie ended up maintaining the Downton Abbey connection from Dockery and Curtis (who is married to Elizabeth McGovern who played Cora), with a star turn for James (Rose), and support from Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley), Jessica-Brown Findlay (Sybil) and Goode (Henry Talbot). Taken together you’ve got a whole lotta people who are incredibly comfortable in period costume. Part of me can’t help but mourn for the idea of Dockery in the lead role, however – in the book, Juliet is 32 years old, and James, who has just turned 29, reads a bit young for a successful writer. She is bloody lovely to look at, though, and is less ‘mannered’ than I’ve seen her in other roles, allowing Juliet a bit of goofiness. The cast is mostly rounded out by people you’ve seen on the telly – like Katherine Parkinson from The IT crowd – and a man I shall henceforth know as The Extremely Handsome Michiel Huisman. Look, I’ve seen The Age of Adaline, I’ve seen Game of Thrones, and he has NEVER done it for me more than in his pig farmer get-up. I don’t understand it and I don’t particularly care to. He is extremely swoon-worthy – noble and caring and just a smidge sarcastic – in this movie.

guernsey

Sexy men aside, there are so many factors at play that will determine whether you like this movie. I enjoy it, as I did the book, because I’m intrigued by the lives of ordinary people during WWII. I gobble up books and movies set in the period, even though I know they make me cry every fucking time (this one wasn’t too bad). However, if that bores you….this movie will probably bore you too. I will say that the period details are absolutely stunning, from Juliet’s fancy London get-ups, the phones, the recycled and repaired clothes from the folks on Guernsey, to the old-school ships and planes. There is a lot of attention to detail at work here, and I always want to give props to the people behind the scenes that hunt these pieces down and create props. While the story itself could easily be told in a TV movie, the budget that comes along with a studio feature has allowed some gorgeous work to be given a starring role. Also, a word of warning for the ladies: you will want to buy hats after this. Juliet wears an abundance of wonderful 1940s hats, and it’s no bloody coincidence that I saw this movie yesterday and went and bought a knit beret today.

james

Not as nice as this one though.

It’s also a love letter to Guernsey, with lush scenery (although it was predominantly filmed in Devon, unfortunately, due to the logistical issues of filming on the island). And what an extraordinary tale the locals had – the book was well-researched, but the movie also does an excellent job of showing just the kind of difficult position they were put in, forced to live alongside their enemy in such a small space for five years. Whilst the Blitz was a horrifying experience for any Londoner, Juliet quickly learns how different the Guernsey experience was to her own. The Society itself grew from an act of resistance, and she learns the complex interrelation between this small group and the occupying forces, and the legacy it has left behind.

The cast bring a lot of warmth, wit, and heart, to what is at its essence a drama. This is a movie that is hugely at risk of being being trod on by genre pics, coming out right in between A Quiet Place (which I also saw yesterday, and really should have seen first to give my heart an opportunity to recover) and Avengers: Infinity War, and as always, I try to review movies that are at risk of being ignored. However, I think just from the trailer, most people know if they want to see this movie or not. If you’re not interested because you don’t like romance…I’m not sure why you’re reading a Victorian Values review, but sure, skip it. If you’re interested but on the fence, I can assure you that the movie is unlikely to disappoint. It’s not a thrill-ride, but it’s stunning to look at, the leads are charming, and the ending is happy.  And Michiel Huisman is very, very handsome.

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Katie Sparkes

A Romantic Realist

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