The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

M, 108 minutes

2 Stars


Review by © Jane Freebury

What would possess someone to walk the length of England, from southernmost Devon to the Scottish border? It is an unlikely quixotic adventure but at its helm is the actor most likely to make it work, dependable Jim Broadbent.

Why do it? It’s a fair question. Sometimes people walk across Australia, a far bigger undertaking, and they have fantastic fund-raising reasons for doing so, but they are likely to be a lot better equipped than Broadbent’s Harold Fry.

The answer to the burning question about Harold’s quest is drip-fed along the way as the solitary walker begins reflecting on his life as acutely painful memories come flooding in.

The pilgrimage, call it a walk for expiation, begins the day Harold attempts to post a short note to a woman he knew at work more than 20 years ago. His former colleague and friend, Queenie (Linda Bassett), suffering terminal cancer, had written a short note to say goodbye. How to respond?

When he finds himself lost for the right words, his wife, Maureen (Penelope Wilton), encourages him to say something, something he meant, it seems like a broad hint. Along with the terse exchanges between the couple, it’s clear their relationship has gone cold., and they have retreated to their corners.

So, Harold strikes out one day, inspired by a young woman with blue hair and tatts who tells him an aunt with cancer had survived because she believed in the healing quality of love. He decides that if he walks to see Queenie, he can keep her alive.

There is also, once Harold has set off on his marathon, a shot of the sun’s rays bursting through cloud that suggests divine inspiration. It is repeated at a later point in the narrative. Though Harold protests he is not religious there are hints that suggest he is, but doesn’t know it. It’s a useful ambiguity like Harold’s feelings for Queenie vis-a-vis the unhappy wife he has left behind.

There is little ambiguity in the flashbacks he has along the way of violent altercations with a depressed and drug-addled young man, who turns out to have been his son, David. There are memories that are disturbingly fresh, and unresolved, of a young man who achieved a place at Cambridge but was unable to complete his studies, let alone find fulfilment in life. David is played very effectively by Earl Cave, Nick’s son.

Had this critical issue come under more scrutiny the drama would have had more ballast

One wants to understand more about this relationship between the volatile, threatening son and the repressed, passive father with emotional deficit that he rejected so. Had this critical issue come under a bit more scrutiny the drama would have had way more ballast. The apron Maureen wears for housework and the yellow rubber gloves that she wears to move the bins outside, suggest a rigid conservative propriety was at play, but the signs don’t quite say it all.

On this picaresque journey across rural England, Harold has tragic memories but he is buoyed by meeting some of the best kinds of folk. Like the Slovakian woman, Martina (Monika Gossmann), a trained doctor, who helps out although she has immense difficulties of her own. A vulnerable young man, Wilf (Daniel Frogson) joins him on his journey for a while, and  there’s a well-meaning party of T-shirt wearing acolytes who tag along for a while. Word gets around about his quest, and in no time he has a retinue of followers, though he doesn’t want them.

Over the course of the 450-mile trudge, Harold’s shoes, the pair he set out in, never let him down. It’s unlikely, but one hell of an advertisement for that particular brand. He also manages to arrive at his destination in the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed in his shirt and tie. Though by that stage, he looks less the clean-cut gentleman and more the vagabond that he has become, sleeping rough, scrounging produce offered at farm gates and crashing in people’s barns along the way.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage is adapted by author Rachel Joyce from her debut novel, a Booker nominee in 2012. The slight story with its feel-good message has been directed by Hettie Macdonald, a contributing director to multiple TV series like Howard’s End and Normal People. I suppose a film of the book was inevitable, but it’s a miscalculation.

First published in the Canberra Times on 11 June 2023. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes