Fans of Downton Abbey have been waiting years for a long-mooted cinematic spin-off, but in the meantime director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) has assembled something of an ‘upstairs’ reunion. His new adaptation of the 2008 New York Times bestseller The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society features no less than four of the hit show’s main cast in major roles – Lily James, Penelope Wilton, Jessica Brown Findlay and Matthew Goode – presumably hoping to capitalise on Downton’s phenomenal international appeal with another story that blends warm-hearted nostalgia with knotty personal drama.
A very faithful adaptation of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ novel, the film is set in the immediate post-war period, as a frustrated but commercially successful young writer, Juliet Ashton (James), stumbles upon the story of Guernsey’s wartime occupation thanks to a letter from one of the members of the titular book club. Formed more out of expediency than a true love of literature – a group of islanders had been feasting on an illegally slaughtered pig (along with the Occupation staple, potato-peel pie) and when questioned by a German patrol invented the ‘society’ as a cover story – it soon becomes clear that the regular meet-ups that followed, including spirited literary debates on everything from Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf, became a means of clinging on to their humanity and shared cultural heritage during the darkest period of their lives.
As Juliet travels to Guernsey to meet the members of the society, hoping to write an article about them for The Times, she becomes entranced by the beauty of the island, and charmed by the eccentric characters who welcome her into their midst, not least Dawsey Adams (Michael Huisman), the attractive and charismatic pig farmer who first wrote to her. But she soon begins to discover traces of a darker story beneath the book group’s jolly façade. One of their former members, Elizabeth McKenna (a spellbinding Brown Findlay), is mysteriously absent from the island, and her daughter – of questionable parentage – is being quietly raised by her friends. As Juliet digs deeper, she uncovers a tragic series of events that took place during the war, and begins to realise the depth of the emotional scars that five years of Occupation have left on the island.
By equal turns charming and poignant, the film hits all the right marks, crafting a compelling story peopled throughout by wonderfully realised characters. It’s beautifully shot as well, with the Devon coast standing in admirably for Guernsey. Although this somewhat puzzling creative decision will no doubt disappoint local viewers, Newell succeeds in capturing something of the spirit of the island without ever actually setting foot on it. As someone who spent three months in Guernsey researching my own book about the Occupation, I could certainly empathise with Juliet’s desire to stay there rather than return to England.
The film is peppered throughout with flashbacks to the Occupation years, and these too are handled successfully, conveying a sense of the difficulties of life under the jackboot without resorting to overblown stereotypes. But where it really shines is in the quality of the supporting cast, who imbue their larger-than-life characters with real heart. Penelope Wilton, playing the elderly Amelia Maugery, a woman whose spirit has almost been broken by the losses she has endured throughout two world wars, has never been better, and Tom Courtenay straddles the line between buffoonery and pathos perfectly, offering a quietly touching portrayal of the postmaster Eben Ramsey, a role that could easily have slid into cliché. Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd, Humans) is on good comedic form, but also imbues the batty Isola Pribby, a gin-brewing spinster with an interest in astrology and mysticism, with melancholy depth, while Brown Findlay is magnificent in her brief flashback appearances as the fiery and principled Elizabeth, the absent centre around which much of the plot revolves. Her character here may not be a million miles away from her breakout role, Downton’s Lady Sybil – another strong-willed young woman who always followed her heart rather than her head, no matter the consequences – but she makes the most of her limited time on screen, bringing to life a young woman who is truly the soul of the story.
Having spent the better part of the last three years researching the Occupation of the Channel Islands myself, and having spoken to more than a hundred islanders who lived through it, this film was always going to appeal to me. I know that Schaffer and Barrows’ book is not universally popular in Guernsey – perhaps inevitably for an outsider’s take on such a personal and traumatic period of local history – but a handful of small historical and geographical discrepancies aside, I think Mike Newell’s adaptation is a very successful one, capturing a great deal of the truth of the Occupation, and in particular its bitter aftermath, with honest integrity. For those who know nothing of this neglected aspect of our national history – the only English-speaking territory to be occupied by the Germans during the war – the movie provides an intriguing introduction. But it does so with humour, pathos and skill, in the company of an engaging ensemble – the perfect way to occupy a spare two hours of your time.
Duncan Barrett is the author of Hitler’s British Isles: The Real Story of the Occupied Channel Islands (Simon & Schuster, £20).