For all the innocuousness dolloped on top, Mike Newell’s latest offering stands up as a fundamentally wholesome film — not quite realistic enough, but enjoyable if you like tea, gin and a good dose of British patriotism. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society may have been slated by critics, but it reveals important attitudes about our conception of the English past on screen. Heritage films have been described as ‘a fantasy of conspicuous consumption, a fantasy of Englishness, a fantasy of the national past’ – all of which Four Weddings director Newell has embraced and arranged neatly in this quaint period picture.
Guernsey has everything you might expect from a tourist reel set in the Channel Islands — apart from the fact that it was filmed in Devon and Cornwall. Taking place in 1946, it tells the story of Juliet Ashton (leading lady Lily James), a successful but disaffected London writer with an ill-suited American boyfriend (Glen Powell) and a longing for something else in life. One night, she comes home to a letter from a stranger, Guernsey resident and pig farmer Dawsey Adams (Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman), who has come across a copy of one of her earlier books. Soon Juliet feels impelled to visit Guernsey and the eccentric book club. After evading her longsuffering publisher (Matthew Goode) and hastily accepting a proposal from the American (destined to fail after the introduction of romantic subplot B), she embarks on a journey into the history of Guernsey and its residents.
An ensemble cast, including the avuncular Tom Courtenay and steely Penelope Wilton, add colour to the film, but the plot surrounding their lives is somewhat less straightforward. Much of the narrative follows Juliet’s fruitless attempts at understanding their reservations in talking to her about the German occupation of Guernsey and about the formation of their society — which, as we learn from the opening shots, was contrived as an alibi for the isolated islanders to meet outside of curfew hours.
Critics have commented that the dialogue has a tendency to seem anachronistic, and this is certainly the case in conversations with young Eli Ramsay (Kit Connor), a baby-faced 14-year-old who acts well but is working with a subpar script. One character that really stood out, however, was Katherine Parkinson’s Isola, a true-to-life manifestation of Parkinson’s comedic streak. Her airy nature is excellently placed to ward off the seriousness of the film. “I believe you’ve met before,” she remarks offhandedly to Juliet and Dawsey. “Yes, this morning,” they affirm. Isola looks quizzical for a moment, before clarifying: “Oh, I meant in a past life.” Also a die-hard fan of the Brontë sisters, her idealism is charming, and although out of step with her usual performances, Parkinson makes the role her own.
Also worth noting is the tradition in heritage films of attempting to recreate the past through self-conscious cinematography, a ‘public gaze’ of scenery used in order to distinguish from the private lives of the protagonists. This is evident when an extreme long shot is used to frame a meeting between Juliet and Mark: the scenery is impressive but unfortunately it seems incongruous, as Mark is about to reveal some important information and their conversation is cut off. Here, as in much of the film, we get the sense of a grander scale of events, but the important details are bypassed in favour of the film’s look.
Guernsey becomes tangibly naive and reductionist about the occupation once the characters begin to reveal their past issues: when Amelia finally shares her reasons behind her reclusiveness, her dialogue is marred by uncomfortable stereotypes of race. Criticism of the film’s shying away from the reality of the German occupation is well-founded: any flashbacks to the war are sugar-coated, bathed in artificial lighting; and the mention of a concentration camp are hurriedly passed over, used as a plot point, but never rupturing the fabric of the idyllic English countryside. As several have pointed out, it resembles a Hardy novel set in 1846 rather than post-war Britain.
However, documenting the war was never the film’s primary concern. Guernsey has been adapted from Mary Ann Shaffer’s epistolary novel told from the point of view of only two characters, and much of the film has taken artistic liberties with the material. The occupation of Guernsey had been thoroughly researched, which, apart from the presence of some archived papers, is an element perhaps missing from the film. Shaffer passed away in 2008 before the novel’s publication, so the mantle was passed on to her niece, Annie Barrows. Given that the title is so distinctive, the novel was soon recognisable and it means that today there is at least a market from fans of the book.
James herself puts up a valiant effort as the hero. Showing capability of a huge variation of styles, especially in contrast to her performance in Baby Driver last year, we see a woman who genuinely enjoys the period setting, flaunting her 40s garb and investing herself as much as she did in Darkest Hour. She bears a strong comparison to Gemma Arterton’s Catrin Cole in Their Finest, another period piece released in April last year. Both films feature a female heroine, caught up in professional writing in London, who make an excursion to a provincial area for a feature. Their Finest had the advantage of being based on true events, whereas Guernsey can be taken with a pinch of salt — it is self-consciously whimsical, but all in the name of entertainment, championing bookworms everywhere.
In an interview, James described her character as a ‘modern woman’, showing that the film is ‘striving to recapture an image of national identity as pure, untainted, complete, and in place’. Because the uglier parts of the war are glossed over – the occupation, imprisonment, and emasculation of an entire nation – we are able to see a clarified, idealized version of the past that is safe for its 12A certificate. Yet whatever the problems with the film, James’ performance was still outstanding: her latest projects include Mamma Mia! 2 and a recently announced production with Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis, so while Guernsey is to her credit, she will certainly be making a comeback. Watch this space.