The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society bears all the hallmarks of a film tailor-made for the US market place, like so many of its peers in the English heritage genre. That makes particular sense in this case, as the novel upon which it is based was written (co-written) by an American (two Americans). And the screenplay was adapted by another couple (and a Brit). It’s ironic then, that the producers have opted to hedge their bets there, selling it straight to Netflix. Maybe they were simply being realistic. If you’ve never been subjected to a period romantic comedy with a splash of tragedy and a love triangle where everything comes right in the end, this might hit the formulaic spot for you. Otherwise, you could well give in to the urge to snooze through a hefty portion of its overly-indulgent running time.
Still, if all else fails, one might divert oneself by marvelling at all those authentic Guernsey vistas… filmed entirely in Devon. If the screenplay is on the underwhelming side and the locations are selling a lie, director Mike Newell fails to take up the slack; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society has about as much personality as the last Newell film you saw that wasn’t written by Richard Curtis (so any one of about fifteen).
He’s unable to mask how incredibly thin the material is, stretched to breaking point in the hope we’ll be caught up in the mystery of what became of Society member Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay), and the unfolding romance between author Juliet Ashton (Lily James) – pen name Izzy Bickerstaff – and ruggedly handsome pig farmer with an unlikely RP accent Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman; to be fair to Huisman, the RP is impeccable). Lest we wonder why Dawsey isn’t engaging in wartime heroics against the Bosche, he nurses a gammy shoulder attesting to his unimpeachable manliness. By rights, though, Adams should have been about five-foot-tall, walking with a limp and spouting unintelligible Patois.
The opening stages resemble nothing less than an extended take on that JR Hartley Yellow Pages advert, as Dawsey writes to Juliet attempting to locate a book (Charles Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare), and Juliet replies by sending a copy of said book. Except, there’s notably more wistful poetry in tracking down epic tome Fly Fishing than Juliet’s fascination with obtaining answers to questions that should be startlingly obvious to anyone with a smidgeon of deductive reasoning.
Such lead-you-by-the-nose exposition is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society all over, though, Juliet made to look extremely dim for needing the help of her nosey landlady (Bronagh Gallagher) to join the dots. This is the sort of film that has characters explaining “across the Channel, in France”, for the benefit of viewers requiring subtitles informing them “London, England”.
A greater problem is the flashback structure, studiously accompanied by over-enunciated voiceover, that fails to find a successful rhythm. Good as Brown Findlay is (possibly the best performance in the film), the occupation sequences, with their beastly Krauts – and one good one – and aesthetically pleasing poverty, are too perfunctory to become immersive.
The trailer boasts flag-waving Nazis marching down a stand-in for St Peter Port High Street, but it looks like they blew the budget on that one shot (the main takeaway from which is Sergeant Wilson’s observation in Dad’s Army: “These uniforms are awfully smart, aren’t they? They really do something for one, don’t you think?”) Consequently, there’s something faintly off-putting and even maybe vaguely objectionable about this cosy recreation of oppression and strife.
The cast do what’s necessary, but there’s no sense of inspiration on anyone’s part. James and Huisman are attractive leads, but there’s little in the way of spark between them. Indeed, there’s more chemistry in the scenes between James and her gay editor (Matthew Goode). Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton do their reliable, professional thing reliably, although the latter is clearly attempting to be extra-formidable and intense on account of going sans makeup. Katherine Parkinson overacts a storm as a proto-hippy, vaguely psychic, gin-soaked lush… which would be fine if this was as larky as The IT Crowd.
Glen Powell is the rich Yank engaged to Juliet and must heroically deal with the thankless ultimately-spurned part. So at least he gets the best moment in the film as a consolation; she breaks up with him and he exits, only to return and kiss her on the top of the head… before reaching over for the expensive bottle of champagne bought to celebrate their evening together and promptly exits once more. A master cad at work! Clive Merrison – the all-time best Sherlock Holmes – also appears, but in only one scene, which is a shame (he isn’t even credited on IMDB as of this review date – sort it out, IMDB!)
Any conversation about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society will be prefaced in years to come by the fact that it wasn’t filmed in the island itself. Jersey actually has films made on its shores – whole TV series, even! – as recently as last year, but Guernsey can’t boast anything since the 1970s (unless you count Howard’s Way, and why would you?) Apparently, the makers “could not logistically make it work”. If it were simply the case that Guernsey was considered too built up and altered to film there viably, one would have thought the producers would have said so. Which suggests the States of Guernsey simply wouldn’t sweeten the pill. Ironic and short-sighted, given the enormous boon of being able to boast a film not only set in Guernsey, but also actually shot there.
Instead, eager American tourists will arrive, only to discover nothing whatsoever matches up. That sort of opportunity only comes along once in a generation, if you’re lucky. It would have been ironic justice had they filmed the Guernsey scenes on the Isle of Man, which has made itself a beacon for film production over the last two decades (boasting more than a hundred productions since 1995).
As it is, there’s little sense of place or capturing the character of an island community; this one consists of about five people. It might as well have been set on Herm. When Juliet first steps off the boat, she immediately bumps into the ruggedly handsome pig farmer. Straight after that, she comes across another member of the Potato Club. You wouldn’t think the island had a population of 42,000 (or 25,000 during the occupation).
Nevertheless, I expect the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society will do decently for the dwindling Guernsey tourist trade (“If you squint, or use photoshop, you can make Pleimont resemble the gorgeous Devon coastline”). It’s utterly undemanding, entirely inoffensive and ever-so-slightly lethargic; it’s a heritage picture through and through.