The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society movie review: the stories too painful to tell

part of my On Netflix Globally series
MaryAnn’s quick take: A wonderfully old-fashioned tearjerker, with a thoroughly delightful cast, where cosy quaint Englishness is leavened by a harsh reality of World War II that pop culture has ignored.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the era, and I’m desperate for women’s war stories
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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London, 1946. The war is finally over. Juliet Ashton (a charming Lily James: Darkest Hour, Baby Driver) has made a fortune as a writer of lighthearted comic essays that have kept spirits up during the years of conflict, but now she longs to turn to something more serious for her next project. A letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman [The Ottoman Lieutenant, The Age of Adaline] at his most appealing yet), a pig farmer on Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, piques her interest when, in the course of requesting her help in finding an old book, he mentions the group he is a member of: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Smelling a story, she is off to Guernsey to make further inquiries about this intriguingly named organization.

“You’re definitely at least as cute as my American diplomat boyfriend back in London, but I’m not sure if I could take the pig-farmer smell.”
“You’re definitely at least as cute as my American diplomat boyfriend back in London, but I’m not sure if I could take the pig-farmer smell.”

Juliet’s adventure — and this movie — may start out rather twee, but it soon turns deeper and darker as she uncovers the roots of the society, which was formed during the German occupation of the island during the war, and stumbles across the mystery of just where its founder, Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay [This Beautiful Fantastic, Victor Frankenstein] in flashbacks), has disappeared to. No one will say: the members of the group — most particularly flinty, exhausted Amelia Maugery (Penelope Wilton: The BFG, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) — don’t trust this outsider enough to reveal much.

Where Juliet’s investigation leads her — and us — is into a realm akin to wonderfully old-fashioned tearjerkers, where cosy quaint Englishness is leavened by a harsh reality of the war that pop culture has ignored. Guernsey Literary isn’t anywhere near as grim or intense as last year’s Another Mother’s Son, a based-on-fact drama set on the same island at the same time; this movie is lightened by a strong smattering of the enchantment of 84 Charing Cross Road, which was also about the love of books bringing readers together across long distances. But a higher-profile cast — also including the always delightful Matthew Goode (Allied, Self/less) as Juliet’s publisher — and the stamp of approval that comes with big-name director Mike Newell — whose long list of credits includes such beloved movies as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Enchanted April, and Into the West — means a potentially much larger audience will be reminded of such an important part of history, the occupation by Nazis of English-speaking territory, that has been all but forgotten, and shouldn’t be. (This is based on the novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows that became a bestseller, so perhaps there’s an interest in this particular bit of history after all.)

Turns out that potato-peel pie, a recipe borne of wartime deprivation, tastes just as disgusting as you’d imagine.
Turns out that potato-peel pie, a recipe borne of wartime deprivation, tastes just as disgusting as you’d imagine.

I’m a sucker for World War II stories, but especially of women’s war stories, which are myriad but have also gone all but untold. (This is as much Elizabeth’s story as it is Juliet’s.) And I absolutely adored this one, from the gorgeous landscapes — though the film was not, alas, shot on Guernsey — to the lush period detail — oh, the clothes! — to how Juliet’s journalistic integrity and desire to unearth a juicy tale never trump her humanity. She is never cruel as she digs for information from the society’s painful past, and she respects the members’ wishes that she not publish once the whole truth is out. That seems like such a small thing, yet it looms large here, and feels like a just-right nod to the power of stories: sometimes, they are simply too overwhelming to share. This one, though, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the story about the story, is very shareable indeed.

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Robin Stephenson
Robin Stephenson
Fri, Apr 20, 2018 11:24pm

I largely concur with your review- beautifully acted particularly by Lily James- my omly slight regret was that Jessica Brown-Findlay’s character didn’t have a little more screen time. And a nice turn from the great Tom Courtney- a shame that one of the leading lights of 60s free cinema seems to be a little forgotten nowadays.

Sat, Apr 21, 2018 12:47am

a very charming book; i’m glad the movie is also praise worthy. though, i love potato skins. shouldn’t a pie of potato skins be tasty?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  bronxbee
Sun, Apr 22, 2018 9:27pm

The movie explains that it’s made of literally nothing but potatoes and peels. The Nazis confiscated almost everything else, so there was probably no fat of any kind — butter or lard or anything — and perhaps not even any salt. It would have been pretty bland, at best.

Mon, Apr 23, 2018 9:27pm

Victory Sponge (cake) starts with carrots…

I’d like particularly to call out costume designer Charlotte Walter, because those costumes are excellent; they look like things people might actually wear, in a way that most WWII-film costumes don’t.