“There’s more to that story than they like to let on…”
Sometimes, only a period drama will do. Last April we had Their Finest, the vastly underrated period drama set during WW2 which was one of my top ten films of the year. This April we have The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society which is set post WW2, but only just.
It’s 1946. The war may have officially ended the year before but London is only starting to get back to normal. Things like fresh paint are finally available again, literally and metaphorically showing that colour is finally emerging after years of bleak grey. Those in society are resuming their parties, something which writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James) reflects is akin to emerging at a carnival after being in a long, dark tunnel. It’s those kind of remarks that her gentleman caller Mark Reynolds (Glen Powell) finds so endearing about her. Juliet’s life seems pretty set in motion – until a letter leads her to discovering a truly marvelous tale. One that will take her to Guernsey to meet a society founded by fearless Elizabeth Mckenna (Jessica Finlay Brown), steadfast Dawsley Adams (Michiel Huisman), kindly Eben Ramsey (Tom Courtney), staunch Amelia Maugrey (Penelope Wilton) and loveable Isola Pribby (Katherine Parkinson). There Juliet will find a wonderful story cloaked in secrecy.
TGLAPPS (as no-one is calling it) isn’t a revolutionary take on the period drama. It is solidly and comfortably by-the-numbers storytelling. It follows familiar beats, takes the expected path for the most part although there is the occasional surprise and knows exactly how to achieve maximum emotive responses from the audience. And that is more than fine because it is done so well. You come to care about the characters quickly and deeply. Penelope Wilton as Amelia made me cry on three separate occasions due to her fine performance. The period details are lovingly and carefully rendered; the landscape is beautifully captured. Guernsey couldn’t ask for a better tourism advert than this one.
What elevates this story compared to many other period dramas is the fact it tells a story that is little known or little considered. How many of us in 2018 actually knew that Guernsey, along with the rest of the Channel Islands, was occupied by the Germans for five years? And of that number, how many of us actually thought about what that actually meant? Much time and focus is given to the experience in those living in London, or other cities in Britain, but how about those who actually forced to live with the enemy; who had to live out their day-to-day existence under constant invasion. Each member of the society has a heartbreaking story to tell, shown through flashback for greater resonance. These are neatly woven into the narrative of the film, not disrupting but enhancing.
Lily James is a wonderfully endearing lead – desperate to find out more and clearly puzzled as to why they are so withdrawn from her. They aren’t just another story to her and she is determined to prove it. Matthew Goode provides an excellent supporting performance as her best friend and literacy agent; yet again prompting the question of why isn’t he given more roles? Katherine Parkinson is so lovely as Isola; there’s something so sweet and ernest about her performance. As for Huisman as Dawsley Adams, along with Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak from 2015’s Far From The Madding Crowd, he has only further heightened my unrealistic expectations of a romantic partner.
This is a sweet and lovingly told story. It’s not ground-breaking but that is not a criticism. 2018 has proven itself to be a year of constantly rubbish weather and constantly rubbish news; there’s a lot to be said about the unrated power of a solid period drama.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is in cinemas from April 20th.