When this movie came across my screen as I fired up Netflix, I knew this is the kind of movie I’d enjoy. Billed as a ‘celebration of literature, love, and the power of the human spirit,’ it’s a charming film set in an English island during WWII. It certainly helps that I’m an Anglophile and British period dramas are my cup of tea, plus this is based on a historical novel written by two women, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
I adore Lily James since Cinderella, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. She’s an instantly-likable actress and it’s easy to warm up to her character, Juliet Ashton a young London writer living in the shadow of the war. Despite the fact that she’s pretty successful, lives in a gorgeous Chelsea flat, her dashing publisher Sidney (Matthew Goode) is also her bestie, and she’s courted by a handsome American soldier (Glen Powell), Juliet doesn’t seem to be as happy as one would think. But her life is about to take a different turn when she gets a letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), a member of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Yep, the mouthful title is a book club that inadvertently got started on a fateful night involving Nazi soldiers in the occupied island of Guernsey. As the correspondence goes on, Juliet is set on writing a book about the book club, and so off she goes to an island in the English channel off the coast of Normandy.
I love the idea of a young woman setting of on an adventure, especially in a time when it wasn’t as free for women to do so. And I also love the fact that Juliet isn’t too eager to marry a seemingly too-good-to-be-true prince charming. Naturally, Juliet was treated like a celebrity once they meet the members of the Society, and that first meet-up where she was presented with the potato peel dish is a group meet-cute. I adore every single member of the Society, Amelia (Penelope Wilton), Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay), Dawsey, Isola (Katherine Parkinson) and Eben (Tom Courtenay), the cast is a bit of a Downton Abbey mini-reunion with Goode, Findlay, Wilton and James herself were all part of the popular period drama cast. But despite their warm welcome, the group (especially Amelia) is vehemently opposed to the idea of Juliet writing an article about them for the Times.
The setback didn’t send Juliet immediately back to London. Instead she’s set on doing research about the German occupation on the island. As the group opens up to her more, she soon finds out about what has happened to Elizabeth. The less said about Juliet’s discovery the better, but it’s safe to say she has fallen in love with the town and the people in it. There’s a lovely tentative romance between Juliet and Dawsey (Huisman is sort of been type cast as romantic lead in period romances and he does well in these roles), but the bonding scenes between Juliet and the female members of the book club is equally delightful to watch. I have to say that Penelope Wilton is particularly memorable as the grieving mother. She’s a terrific character actress who can balance drama and comedy seamlessly.
Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings & A Funeral, 2012 Great Expectations) kept the tone pretty light despite some of the serious war-related scenes, he puts the focus more on the relationship between Juliet and the people she encounters. It sometimes feels like a rom-com, but with more at stakes given the time it’s set in. But it doesn’t quite escape the trappings of the genre in that the romance is completely predictable. Fortunately, there’s enough of a surprise surrounding the lives of the people involved and the poignant history they’ve been through that I’m still swept up and moved by it.
Visually and thematically, it feels something out of Jane Austen movies. It’s even more enchanting for me personally as the movie make some references Austen, as well as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. The set pieces are gorgeous, there’s something so immensely charming about the small, coastal English town. It wasn’t filmed in Guernsey however, but instead the coastal exterior was shot in various UK locations such as Cornwall, Bristol, etc. I also love the 40s period clothing that makes everyone so vintage chic.
This is definitely ‘comfort food’ for fans of period dramas like me, but fortunately a nutritious one. Interestingly, this was supposed to be a Kenneth Branagh production with Kate Winslet in the title. As much as I’m intrigued by that prospect, I have to say I like Lily James as Juliet and I appreciate Newell’s old-school, unabashedly-sweet approach. I would have liked to have seen more of [bespectacled, Clark-Kent like] Matthew Goode, but I enjoyed seeing every bit of him every time he’s on screen.
I’m glad this movie is on Netflix as I’d readily watch it again. As a writer, one of the biggest appeal for me is how the movie is practically a wonderful love letter to the written word.
Have you seen The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society? I’d love to hear what you think!