There is a fascinating and moving story at the heart of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Society, the Mike Newell adaptation of Mary Ann Shaffer’s and Annie Barrows; novel of the same name. Unfortunately, the story that Newell has chosen to focus on is a rather saccharine, entirely by-the-numbers period romance that only manages to tease with hints of a much more engaging tale.
Lily James is Juliet, a writer in London a couple of years after the war. She receives a letter from Dawsey (Michiel Huisman, better known as a Daario Naharis in Game Of Thrones), a pig farmer on recently-liberated Guernsey who has one of her books, the two strike up a postal friendship over a shared love of books, and she hops on a ferry to Guernsey to visit him. Once you learn that Lily is also going out with Mark (Glen Powell), a non-specifically senior American army officer, then if you can’t figure out exactly how Juliet’s arc proceeds then you’re simply not trying very hard.
Entirely obvious and predictable romance tale notwithstanding, what Juliet discovers about forbidden love between German occupiers and locals hints at an entirely more fascinating and engaging tale. Sadly, however, Newell does little more than tease and hint, and the story that would have made a significantly better film is buried under vanilla-flavoured schmaltz.
As a result, the cast, a fantastic lineup of talent of the sort that only British films ever quite seem able to assemble, are rarely able to get out of second gear. Penelope Wilton, as Amelia, is rarely given the chance to warm up, while it seems hard to understand why the film even bothered to rope in Tom Courtenay without giving him a lot more to do; one might as well buy a Ferrari just for the school run. Matthew Goode is Sidney, Juliet’s publisher in London who is, obviously to the point of cliché but for no particular narrative purpose, gay, and, again, we’ve seen Goode be better than this, most recently as the future Lord Snowdon in The Crown, a role that was significantly more fleshed-out. Newell’s direction to Katherine Parkinson appears to have gone little further than “Just do that thing you did in The IT Crowd, there’s a good girl.” And at the heart of it all is James. In Darkest Hour she started to show a depth that she’d only hinted at as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey, but while she’s an entirely pleasant and engaging screen presence, she lacks, at least for now, the depth and strength to carry a film like this, and manages only to be just a little bit lightweight, and as a result the film, for the most part, fails to rise much beyond that level as a whole.
But on occasion, as in flashback stories of fraternisation and, possibly, collaboration with the enemy are told, the film and its stars are given the opportunity to reveal just a little more depth, and something much more interesting, more powerful, an altogether different and better film, is suggested. Had Newell made that film, then The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Society would have been an entirely stronger and richer film. As it stands, it’s an entirely pleasant way to pass a couple of hours, but little more than just that.