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Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Sarah Ward

Resilient Brits, a holidaying heroine and heightened emotions combine in this warm but undemanding romantic mystery.
Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Movie still image of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society via StudioCanal.

As a title, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society might be a mouthful, but it couldn’t suit this warm, nostalgic post-war drama better. Filled with the same creamy shades shared by texts and tubers, the film adaptation of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ novel proves the cinematic version of both: not a well-thumbed book to snuggle up with or a just-baked dish of comfort food, but an unchallenging, reassuring feature equally intended to evoke cosy, content feelings. 

They’re the sentiments its titular group wishes to enjoy, too – and given they’re forced to conjure up their club under Nazi questioning, that’s understandable. After gathering for a rare secret evening of food, drink and good company on the occupied island during the Second World War, friends Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay, TV’s Harlots), Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman, Irreplaceable You), Isola Pribby (Katherine Parkinson, Humans), Eben Ramsey (Tom Courtenay, Dad’s Army) and Penelope Wilton (Penelope Wilton, Brief Encounters) tell the German officers that they’re part of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Such quick thinking saves them from further interrogation, and so commences a weekly series get-togethers. 

Directed by Mike Newell (Great Expectations), the movie relays the bulk of their tale from the less-fraught confines of 1946, shortly after the hostilities have ended. Searching for a book by a favourite author and stumbling across the contact details of novelist Juliet Ashton (Lily James, Darkest Hour) in an old tome, Dawsey writes a letter asking for her assistance. Despite her literary agent’s (Matthew Goode, The Crown) misgivings, the London-based scribe is thrilled and intrigued in equal measure, soon sailing over to the isle to discover more about their merry society. What she finds is a new group of pals, a respite from her own wartime ordeal and a puzzle to piece together, involving the absence of founder Elizabeth – plus conflicted emotions over her new engagement to American military officer Mark Reynolds (Glen Powell, Sand Castle), sparked by her instant rapport with her handsome pen pal. 

Translated to the screen by writers Kevin Hood (A Royal Night Out), Thomas Bezucha (Monte Carlo) and Don Roos (This Is Us), The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society suitably resembles a melange of their previous efforts: charming Brits, a holidaying heroine and heightened emotions. Indeed, in the crowd-pleasing mode that served him so well in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Newell wrangles all of the above into an undemanding romantic mystery that’s as light as a temperate English Channel breeze and as picturesque as the Guernsey hillsides. Those aspects — the literal elements — serve the film nicely; though it wasn’t shot on location, it’s a handsome affair, with cinematographer Zac Nicholson (The Death of Stalin) making the most of the scenic sights. Accordingly, journeying through the glory days pairs nicely with journeying through glorious surroundings, editor Paul Tothill (A Streetcat Named Bob) letting both unspool slowly, allowing audiences to savour every moment.

There’s a growing subgenre of films such as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, harking back to days not so long ago with a wistful eye – of better times and better folks, even with war featuring so prominently. 2017’s Their Finest proves the movie’s closest antecedent, and a more well-rounded example; however the heavy slate of recent British Second World War flicks belong in the same company. Not only do they explore an important chapter of history, but such titles gift their older target audience with spirited accounts of good old-fashioned British resilience, as served up in a genial swell of fond reminiscence. Alongside its welcoming cast of recognisable talent, many with backgrounds on Downton Abbey and all pairing their performances with the feature’s genial tone, that’s the perfectly pleasant The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’s strongest asset.

 ★★★

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Director: Mike Newell

US/UK, 2018, 124 mins

Release date: April 19

Distributor: StudioCanal

Rated: M

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay