The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)
There are so many levels on which one can enjoy the curiously titled The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)that describing the film is a challenge. Like many British period dramas, it has an epic quality in how it reflects on the world as it was in the 1940s. Sumptuously filmed and beautifully acted, it blends historical insight into a finely-crafted tale of mystery and romance.
Other than history buffs, most people would be unaware that German troops occupied the British Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey in 1940-45. Many Island children were evacuated to England just prior to the occupation and the invasion encountered virtually no military resistance. Under Nazi rule, many Islanders were sent to forced labour and concentration camps in Germany and all farm produce was confiscated for military use. The film opens with a group of Islanders out after curfew, having enjoyed an illicit roast pig and home-brewed gin even though strict food rationing was in place. Facing immediate arrest, they concoct an excuse about being members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society who have been enriching their minds while feeding on potato peels, as the Fuhrer would want. From this serendipitous moment, a local tradition is born.
Switching to 1946, we meet Juliet Ashton (Lily James) a successful writer living comfortably in London and pondering ideas for her next book. Pursued by a wealthy American suitor, she enjoys the giddy glamour of a British high society that is rebuilding after the war. A letter from a member of the Guernsey Literary Society excites her interest and she soon travels to the Island to learn more. She becomes enchanted with its idyllic village life and rural tranquillity and how each member of the Society has their own wartime story to tell. There is also a new romance simmering where least expected, as well as guarded secrets and strong resistance to a book being written about them.
This simple plotline understates the multiple sub-stories that are a montage of war-time Guernsey, including dark themes of Nazi collaboration, the trauma of children separated from families, and uplifting themes about how literature can bring people together across time and space. The film’s source novel was framed around letters between Juliet and Society members, so timeframes shift frequently but with seamless continuity. There are several charming exchanges about writers and novels that you would expect from lovers of literature. The filming aesthetic evokes the era with authenticity, while Lily James and the ensemble cast are superb.
Some might say that this story is told through a soft-focus lens, mediated through the gentility of Juliet’s privileged life and self-indulgent curiosity about the lives of others. That may be so, but her narrative perspective accentuates the world of difference between war-time London and Guernsey. Without such insights, the story would be just a warm-hearted melodrama. But the film offers much more than that. It is an engaging detective story, a study of survival under wartime occupation, and a tale of friendship, romance, and love of literature.
Director: Mike Newell
Stars: Lily James, Matthew Goode, Michiel Huisman, Tom Courtney, Penelope Wilton