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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

CRUMBLIES… 4 crumblies (…so nearly a 3 crumblies on grounds of taste in the plotting…)

Okay. After the tension of Another Mother’s Son (2017), we all sat down to try out the next film in the Channel-Islands-at-War genre. And by war, we mean the only British territories to be taken over by the Nazis. Which wasn’t a fighting thing. They were abandoned by Churchill and government who added to the wretchedness by not letting the enemy know they were unarmed. So, picture a moment when your county of choice is bombed by bastards with neither facts nor conscience. Another Mother’s Son was closer to reality, telling a true story of a family known to old Jack here’s cousins. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (TGLAPPPS) is rather more fanciful: a film, with a film’s structure, based on a book written ten years ago by Americans. Which explains my one, big problem with it…

…because the film is mostly lovely. An epistolary post-war romance (looking at you 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) and others). Not quite told in that fashion, it involves the immensely likeable and incidentally successful writer Juliet Ashton writing to pig-farmer Dawsey Adams. He’s ended up with a copy of a book she once owned, or something. Anyway, living in war-torn London as a successful, pseudonymous author with a sweetheart of a literary agent (Matthew Goode gives good longing…with a sleight of hand I rather resented), she is unhappy and heads off to Guernsey having swapped notes with Dawsey. She is on the way to discovering what The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was all about…

And this is where the film gets filmic. Lily James is, as ever, charmingly likeable company  as Juliet, modern soul, heading away from her own loss (her parents didn’t survive the war), into the magically sweet version reported by Dawsey. For he is part of a small group of islanders who had been forced into creating the society – a book club – as a pretence to trick the Germans. Cue flashback storytelling. These things existed. Over on Jersey, my cousins kept Scout meetings going in the dead of night, casual wear, pretending they were prayer meetings. On Guernsey, similar inventiveness kept people sane, but the fanciful TGLAPPPS has some secrets…

It consists of a bunch of glorious character actors. Tom Courtenay is sweet old-man emotion incarnate as Eben. Not shy of telling Juliet how gorgeous she is, he has the licence of the old (got that, hot nurses?). Katherine Parkinson gives good witchy-spiritual and lonely-because-of-it as Isola, maker of spirits. The main drivers of the secrets though are the terrific Penelope Wilton as Amelia, feeler of shame, and the long-missing Jessica Brown Findlay as tomboyishly earnest moral transgressor Elizabeth. It is her story that Juliet intrudes upon, causing any amount of stress, whilst also distancing herself from her American beau (Glen Powell as unwisely controlling Mark) and falling for the honesty of the pig-farmer.

Oh yes, it is that kind of romance.

Of the oldsters, Courtenay and Wilton are at their best. Character actors doing their thing, their rôles are – as ever – a frame for the young. But, unusually, here, the film doesn’t over-egg the difference. For once, in war, the old were as powerless as most of the young. And a good degree less foolish, perhaps.

If old Jack has a reservation, it is triggered by my cousins’ war experience. One of the characters in this film becomes what was despised on the islands: a “jerrybag“. The plot does some one-line handstands to make it look okay for a British woman to sleep with an invading soldier, but it made old Jack here’s blood boil. For this is not the stuff of wartime romance. It is the stuff of rank betrayal as friends are hunted, murdered and their lives choked into starvation. I don’t doubt it felt like an artistically brave twist to leave in this part of the plot, even portraying the transgressor as wounded hero, but my cousin Charlotte lost too many friends, saw cousin Len take a bayonet to his back… so using such things to make a love-conquers-all point is repellant. But I guess I was the only one in the TV room who knew enough to be pissed off.

TGLAPPPS is a good film, well told, beautifully shot (if not entirely where it is pretending to be, much like Another Mother’s Son (2017), and the central love story plays out like a happy snowball tearing downhill. Its artificiality makes it an easier watch than Another Mother’s Son (2017) while the acting is modern Poldark / Downton quality, with Lily James an easy star of the thing. Michel Huisman as Dawsey is acceptably beautiful and decent, parenting a kid like every hero ever. The story’s epistolary origins pop through in respect for books, letters and the words within. And that gives the thing its resonance in the end.

Whatever the questionable plotting (and, to those writers toying with invaders and the invaded not getting tarred and feathered for their transgressions, fucking quit it), it is a film with loveliness and balance and an effective romance.

And is very pretty.

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