Review by © Jane Freebury
As the filmmaker behind every second person’s favourite comedy, Four Weddings and a Funeral, the director Mike Newell has had a bit to live up to since 1994. This, his latest film, is in similar vein to that modern classic with a trans-Atlantic romance, an ill-matched couple, and a cosy sense of Englishness.
Initially, I hadn’t found the sound of it enticing, but when it began I was quickly won round by the lead character, the medley of endearing personalities, the old-fashioned charm, and the production polish. And once we move from London in the aftermath of WWII to the stone cottages and plunging cliffs of the Channel Islands, it looks beautiful too—with Devon and Cornwall standing in for Guernsey.
For those who have not read the book (of the same title), I can report that it involves a spirited young woman who earns an excellent living from her writing. No food stamps for Juliet (Lily James). She finds some of the fashions irresistible – who wouldn’t? – and she makes enough to afford a fine apartment too, but she rents a modest room in a boarding house instead. At the moment it is a sea of red roses sent by her boyfriend, a smooth American, Mark (Glen Powell).
Otherwise, she is alone, having lost her parents during the war, and tends to follow her heart and instincts, rather than those of her business-oriented friend and publisher, Sidney (Matthew Goode). She is on the point of dropping the silly nom de plume, Izzy Bickerstaff, with which she became famous, and doing something serious.
James and a brace of the actors besides her have appeared in television on Downton Abbey, not everyone’s cup of tea. If this is a selling point it is lost on me and maybe others, but the performances (from Penelope Wilton and Jessica Brown Findlay, etc) are spot on.
As is Dutch actor Michiel Huisman – who others may know through TV’s astonishing Game of Thrones – the pig farmer, Dawsey, who writes to Juliet asking for help finding titles for his book club. It prompts her to visit.
Juliet’s welcome on Guernsey is uneven. The postmaster’s grandson is pleased to see her, but others—especially her landlady and the matriarch of the bookclub, Amelia (Wilton)—border on rudeness, and cannot bring themselves to welcome this stranger, however honourable her motives, into the insular community.
Such accomplished escapism with characters to care about has never hurt anyone
In flashbacks early on, the film explains how it came by its incongruous title, and asks for our indulgence. The idea of a bookclub apparently came in a moment of desperation when a group of islanders were surprised by a Nazi patrol while making food deliveries during curfew.
The Nazis occupied the Channel Islands, a British protectorate, from 1940-45, or for most of the war. To explain themselves, on the spot, the miscreants invent the idea of a bookclub and name it after the spud pie one of their number is carrying. Surely it wasn’t necessary to burden the film with it too.
And yet, despite this handicap and some risky nostalgia for an idealised past, Newell’s film has a winning combination of easy charm, lively characters and romance to more than make up for it.
A subplot involving a young German doctor stationed on Guernsey underlines the generosity and humanity of this sweet tale. It may be a confection, but a slice of such accomplished escapism with characters to care about has never hurt anyone.
Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle