The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Lily James in a scene in the movie 
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. (Empire Entertainment)
Lily James in a scene in the movie The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. (Empire Entertainment)


4/5 Stars


The year is 1946 and Juliet Ashton is a successful writer still struggling to come to terms with what she lost in the war and is desperate to write something that matches the gravity of what she and her country had just been through, rather than the flights of fancy on which she made her name. When she receives a letter out of the blue from a pig farmer on the small island of Guernsey, only recently liberated from the Nazis, she finds exactly what she’s looking for – and a whole lot more as her investigation leads to her becoming drawn into the lives of the members of Guernsey’s mysterious book club, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, as it becomes clear that there’s a lot more to their story than anyone seems keen to let on.


To address the white elephant in the room: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society really is a total nightmare of a title so I will henceforth be referring to the film simply as Guernsey. There is a very specific reason for that title, though, and it plays into the events of the film more than you might think; I just don’t have the patience, the memory, or the space to type out the entire title every time. And yes, I’m aware of the irony that I just wrote an entire paragraph to avoid writing a half dozen words...

Ludicrous title or not, Guernsey is a fairly straightforward film that may not exactly run from quaintness and cliché but, beyond its obvious and fairly uninteresting love story (quick guess, who do you think our heroine ends up with: her possessive, perennially smirking, rich American fiancée or the absurdly handsome, salt-of-the-earth pig-farmer and single father?), it’s an involving, beautifully told story, bolstered by some excellent performances and a picturesque setting.

Hot on the heels of totally owning Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Lily James once again shines as Juliet, the film’s chief protagonist and point-of-view character. She remains an incredible screen presence and, despite the fact that the story being told is more about her supporting cast – the Society, in particular – she has her own story to tell and is our constant guide throughout the film, drawing us with her further and further into the lives of these people and the story they’re all very reluctant to tell.  

Their story, as it turns out, is hardly entirely unexpected but the real joy of the film is watching it slowly unfold through numerous flashbacks to the war and the Nazi occupation, while what happens in the “present” adds context to those events and proves to be every bit as engaging thanks to some vividly-drawn characters and a tranquil-yet-truly-alive tone that calls to mind Bill Forsyth’s 1983 masterpiece, Local Hero. Indeed, the fact that it constantly brings to mind Local Hero and doesn’t entirely pale in comparison – though pale it does, of course: Local Hero is a hell of a film to live up to – says a lot about how effective Guernsey was at working its spell on me.     

There is some fine work done by the men in the cast, with Matthew Goode and Tom Courtenay being particular standouts, but Guernsey really belongs to the ladies. Along with Lily James, the two characters that make the most impression are Penelope Wilton (who, despite being a brilliant actress with a major career spanning decades, will always be, to me at least, Shaun’s Mum from Shaun of the Dead) as the Society’s haunted elder statesman and the IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson, playing wildly against type as arguably the film’s most sympathetic character. 

Director Mike Newell – working off a script by Don Roos, Kevin Hood and Thomas Bezucha that is itself based on a novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – has a career that stretches all the way back to the mid 1960s and his years of experience is more than evident throughout this film. There’s a real sense here that no matter how generic things may get or how predictable, we’re always in a safe pair of hands; that we’re watching an experienced storyteller effortlessly weave together different characters, film genres and tones into a satisfying whole. 

The whimsical quaintness of the “present” should chafe heavily against the war-set flashbacks, for example, but by adding a melancholy streak through the “present” and softening the edges of the flashbacks, Newell gives the film far greater tonal consistency than it rightly should have. It’s meticulously paced too, giving audiences the chance to take in the world of the film even as the story progresses at a steady but unhurried trot, making its two-hour-plus runtime breeze right on by. 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (ah, what the hell) is undoubtedly the sort of film that those with more cynical hearts can easily write off as an overly sentimental look at a particularly tough time for a small British island – but it’s precisely this accessibility and quietly assured, old-fashioned storytelling that makes it such a treat for those of us willing to go with it. 


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