Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society


This mouthful, so large and awkward that even the film's actors couldn't manage to not stumble over it, is the title of a movie, based on a novel, set just after WWII and centering on a young writer (the lovely Lily James) who happens upon a very odd story, and plunges into it headfirst -- as writers do -- only to find it even more compelling and life-changing than she ever could have dreamed up herself.

She does her best, poor girl, but the material is a mess of tropes repackaged in vintage paper.

This movie is not bad -- for what it is. I only feel comfortable in making that statement with the addition of the qualifier, because the movie is not what I expected or at all wanted, but I believe that if what it is is what a person wants to see, they would enjoy it very much. So -- I'm going to try and describe what it is as accurately as possible. If it still sounds good to you when I'm done, then you'll know it's the movie for you.

The novel was written in 2008 by two ladies. Here's how I imagine it went down: the two ladies were binge-watching Hallmark movies in mid-June, and chatting about Jane Austen, or Anne Bronte more likely, and out of the blue one says to the other, "We could write something better than this!" And so they did. And the end result was that it was made into a movie that's basically a Hallmark rom-dram with better production and a first-rate cast. So I guess they succeeded. My only problem is that they didn't aim very high.

I'm sure there's a genuinely great movie hiding in there somewhere.

I make fun of Hallmark movies, but I've seen my share, and if you've seen one plot you've seen them all. And based on the instincts I picked up from them, I predicted the two main aspects of the movie right off the bat, before they ever even set up one of the aspects as a convoluted mystery to be unwound bit by bit. If you know a little about the story you know that the titular Society is a book club. Well in the whole movie there's a grand total of two scenes of this book club, though they are by far the best bits the movie had to offer.

I expected something like Jane Austen Book Club meets Julie and Julia and all I can say is, don't expect that. There's even less cooking than there is reading. What there is, is drama, and our plucky heroine gently nagging the Society members for crumbs of a story until it's been collected, complete with flashbacks of each significant turn to accompany the explanations. If you've also figured it out for yourself, you get it three times. It's like Nancy Drew on a small British island, but with no lurking danger to give any stakes. Miss Marple, but no murderer to catch.

In short, it spends a lot of time doing very little. And it definitely wishes it were a true story.

The cast is excellent. Many familiar names, and even more familiar faces. All been in better things, yet they all admirably try their very best to instill the half-dead script with some life. What's most apparent is their exertion. Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Katherine Parkinson, and Lily James hold the movie afloat with their efforts. Matthew Goode and Glen Powell are memorable characters. Michiel Huisman looks handsome with his stubble-beard, and makes sure to have a scene where his shirt is tastefully unbuttoned more than usual.

Nothing too scandalous, this is 1946 after all. If, however, it wanted to be set in 2018, very few changes would have been necessary. There's even a scene where a character uses an old-fashioned version of speaker-phone so he can be hands-free during the conversation. A public proposal feels extremely modern, and in fact most of the romance subplot has no clue or care that it's supposed to be era-accurate. Most unpleasant to me, was the juxtaposition between the fluffy romance, and attempts to portray horrors of WWII with effective dramatic impact. It felt oddly cheap and exploiting.

I spent most of my writing time trying to figure out how to better word the title. It's impossible.

If you like Lily James, that's the best recommendation the movie has to give for itself. It doesn't have much artistic merit or character exploration. Attempts at such come across clumsily. It has no real theme though it does pull out the "family is friends" card near the end. It's simply not quality storytelling. It does, however, have some moments that work emotionally, due to the actors mostly, some lovely landscapes and locations, and plenty of contrived melodrama and romance.

I think I said it best in the beginning: It's a TV movie. Don't expect anything more. It's Hallmark with an extra budget and a fondness for an Americanized, modernized, fantasy version of quaint British living circa mid-1940's. Sound good? Then dig in. It's just potatoes, and potato-peelings.


  1. Aw, I liked it. It was fluffy, but I don't think it pretended not to be? I think because of the Downton-heavy cast I went in thinking it was going to be a similar sort of thing. You're right about the horrors of WW2 though. It was a bit... jarring. One character bringing her Nazi boyfriend to the book-club I felt was a bit odd.

    1. I'm glad you did! It certainly didn't pretend otherwise once it got started. Somehow the trailer gave me a very different impression. More refined and elegant like Downton was at the beginning, maybe. But it was more of a modern story set back in time than a period piece that observes the rules of the era.

  2. The book was a DNF for me, plot and moral-wise, but I was considering watching the film; I was just worried about WWII flashbacks. My most vivid memory is of some of the intentionally horrifying descriptions of WWII; I have issues with WW fiction. I can do the subtly, implied horror (Book Thief, All the Light We Do Not See) where I'm begging them not to be explicit, but I don't want wallowing. The real descriptions in history books are bad enough; we don't need mockery/voyeurism/vicarious sadism for a variety of reasons (personal sensitivity, respect for those who lived through(I found Code Name Verity HIGHLY disrespectful). I dislike flippancy with these terrible events.

    1. Well the flashbacks are really strange, because visually they are restrained, and the horror is implied and kept off-screen -- but it's always accompanied by a character narrating in pretty explicit detail. I found it oddly off-putting even though I usually don't mind violence in movies. I guess I'd rather see it than have it described to me, idk. I doubt they meant anything than to be be respectful, but it was odd and uncomfortable, especially considering the light tone of the rest of the movie. They probably made it dark with the idea that they didn't want to be dismissive or flippant, but it kinda backfired.