With a title as strange as any, The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society is set against the rolling lush hills and devasting cliffs of Guernsey, encompassed by crashing waves and hardy locals. The film is an adaptation of the novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows and is a war film not set on a battleground, but on an isolated isle telling the tale of the German occupation of the Channel Islands between 1940 and 1945.
The beautiful yet disconnected island of Guernsey is hardly the ideal location for successful, yet ambitious and bright writer Juliet (Lily James), who lives a glamorous high-life in London, dating wealthy American Mark Reynolds (Glen Powell), who’s looking to establish a publishing empire. That is, until when Juliet receives a letter from a complete stranger and honest Guernsey-based pig farmer, Dawsey (Michiel Huisman) requesting information about an author Charles Lamb, the writer is compelled to help send Dawsey further books by Lamb and captivated by the book club he mentions he is part of: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – so much so that she is enticed to travel to the picturesque island and find out more.
Under the guise of writing an article for The Times Literary Supplement about the experiences of the Literary Society members, who founded the book club almost by accident after being caught outside of curfew hours during the German occupation, Juliet strikes up fond friendships with each of the Society’s members as she embarks on an investigation to uncover the mystery surrounding the group’s founder, Elizabeth McKenna’s (Jessica Brown Findlay) arrest at the hands of the Germans.
Laughs are had from Katherine Parkinson’s performance of zany yet well-meaning, gin distilling (and swigging!) Literary Society member Isola Pribby and a warm and endearing script that’s sprinkled with humour. However, the film also tenderly paints a tragic and poignant picture of how the Second World War infiltrated every aspect of life and invaded every element of society in the Channel Islands, from rations to evacuations to discrimination and separation. People were forced to play roles they were never intended to play, their identities distorted, from a flashback scene depicting Isola helping injured islanders, to Christian Hellmann (Nicolo Pasetti), Elizabeth’s forbidden German lover, being a doctor reluctantly forced to don a soldier’s uniform thanks to conscription and the heinous circumstances of war.
The movie delivers a powerful and thought-provoking yet simple message that all humans are capable of humanity, even the German soldiers during the Second World War. Dawsey’s casual line explaining that his bad shoulder, harmed in a childhood injury, keeps him out of a uniform and “keeps me from fighting you” to Christian struck a lasting chord, illustrating that, just as love and hate are said to be the two sides of the same coin, so are the fragile ideals of war and peace.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is interesting in that it tells the often-untold story of the German invasion of British Channel Islands. With a high standard of acting, especially from Penelope Wilton who plays bereaved and slightly bitter Society member Amelia, the movie has deeper themes of guilt, shame and regret that transcends your run-of-the-mill romance as Amelia wrestles with her conscience of being unable to see in Christian what Elizabeth saw and Dawsey is consumed with anguish over his failure to stop Elizabeth embarking on the activities that resulted in her arrest.
The fact that there’s no charm in sending a text as there is with letters, no magic in ‘Googling’ something like there is in scouring articles and interviewing people for them to recount and regale their tales and nothing quite as delightful as escaping into the infinite world of books at a time of oppression and despair, makes the film a nostalgic watch as Juliet dives deeper into her authentic, rewarding and holistic investigation of finding out what secrets the Society are hiding and ultimately of finding herself.
My advice with this film? Only see it if you have a passion for the ‘people’ side and human experience element of history and a fondness of romances and, judging by all the actors’ reactions in the film, don’t try to make a Potato Peel Pie at home…seriously save the money you would have spent on the spuds or spend it on some chips instead…