The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society review: Charming but predictable wartime drama.

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society review by Freda Cooper. 

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society review
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society review

Sometimes a title leads you right up the garden path.  Aside from probably being the longest film name so far this year, The Guernsey Literary Society And Potato Peel Society sounds like it should be a comedy, something akin to last year’s Their Finest.  But no.  The only common ground between the two is the World War II setting.  After that, they’re chalk and cheese.

Mike Newell’s first feature film for six years is set partly during the War and partly in the aftermath, with author Juliet (Lily James) receiving a letter from a member of the society of the title.  She’s been looking for something meaningful to write about and their correspondence makes her believe she’s found it.  With her agent’s (Matthew Goode) reluctant support, she visits the group on Guernsey and forms a bond with them.  And, while on the island, she’s able to help them resolve an emotional mystery and examine her own feelings about her life in London.

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society review
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society review

It’s a story that moves backward and forwards in time, but one that also meanders and becomes so bogged down in details that it slows everything down.  The result is a running time that’s simply too long.  Yet, curiously, it does the details rather well – the hardships that went with the German occupation of Guernsey, for instance.  The potato peel pie of the title – we learn how the society gets its name in the opening sequence – is the result of severe food rationing.  German soldiers confiscate all the farm animals to feed their troops, leaving the residents to survive on potatoes and little else.  There’s even a sequence involving a pig being reared in secret that brings back memories of Alan Bennett’s A Private Function.  There’s slave workers, a curfew, identity cards yet, apart from the coastal watchtowers, the island’s narrow streets and beaches still look picturesque.  Even though the film was shot elsewhere.

It needs more, so the main narrative is a fusion of a mystery surrounding the disappearance of local girl Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay), who only ever appears in flashbacks, and a romance that sees Juliet having to choose between two men.  There’s the adoring American officer, Mark (Glenn Powell), who desperately wants to marry her, and Guernsey farmer Dawsey (Game Of ThronesMichiel Huisman), who originally wrote to her on behalf of the society.  There’s a third man in the equation, her literary manager Sidney: he’s fond of her but his interests lie elsewhere, and it’s obvious early on where Juliet’s heart really lies.  And that’s the problem with the entire storyline.  It’s all too predictable.

Related: Their Finest review

Newell makes the most of his strong cast and they provide the charm that helps keep the film afloat, making a welcome relief from the generally somber tone.  Penelope Wilton is excellent as a woman who’s suffered more than most during the War and can’t see an end to it.  And Tom Courtenay makes a loveable postmaster who’s the brains behind the society.  It’s the cast that keeps you going, even if you do find yourself wondering about their curious mixture of English accents.  French was the official language of Guernsey until 1948 but this is a very anglicised version of the island.  Even the chemist’s displays an old Boots logo.

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society review
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society review

For all its charm and detail, it’s simply too pat and predictable.  And far too cozy.  The only exception is Wilton, with one particular speech that brings you closer to the suffering that went with the occupation.  Otherwise, you suspect that potato peel pie isn’t as horrible as they make out, but bland.  In which case, it’s given its name to the right film.

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society review by Freda Cooper. 

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is released in the UK on Friday, 20 April.

Watch our exclusive interviews with director Mike Newell, star Jessica Brown Findlay and co-author Annie Barrows here.