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An enjoyable film which Mike Newell did not do true justice to Mary Ann Shaffer's novel
on 7 September 2018
Before Ted Heath’s decision to take Britain into the EEC Six the Channel Isles represented Britain’s tomato growing centre, her closest point to the continent, and a warm tourist destination in the country. Since then Europe and, less important Bergerac, brought many notable changes. What remained was its history and natural beauties. 2017 brought Jersey back onto the public scene with the brilliant wartime thriller Another Mother’s Son; twelve months on it was her sister island’s Guernsey’s turn with the longer less easily title to run off the tongue, The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society.
Based on the novel of letters mainly by Mary Ann Shaffer & concluded by her niece and children’s writer Annie Barrows, the story returns to the five-year wartime island during German occupation, when it became cut off and starved from the rest of Britain, and the living example of life and horrors under the Nazi jackboot, where privations, and necessities turned generation long island friends into enemy informers, and survival depended on luck and the trusted few one knew. Liberation and peace in May 1945, and later reconstruction could not mean forgiving or forgetting, but for many islanders continued divisions and silences (see Alice Evans Guernsey Under Occupation, 2009, & Ruth Ozanne Life in Occupied Guernsey, 2011).
Director Mike Newell of Four Weddings fame, and producers Broadbent & Czernin were assisted by a prefect setting, a good story, and a cast led by three familiar Downton Abbey faces: one, a promising young London based writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James) who a spreads a warm ray of light, and turns young and old both male and female heads and warms their hearts alike whenever her cue to enter; two: the seemingly grumpy but thoughtful matriarch widow Amelia Maugery (Penelope Wilton), and the virtually absent and ghost-like floating figure of Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay), are the right ingredients for success.
Juliet first learns of TGLPPS through a chance readdressed letter received from a Guernsey pig farmer Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) who had found comfort in wartime reading her copy of Charles Lamb’s Selected Essays of Elia. Juliet pieces together the coming together of the Society joined by common friendship, lack of food, but much literary stimulation, as well as the absence “abroad” of Elizabeth, the true founder of the Society, through small offerings made by each unwilling, frightened protagonist to a still fairly unknown and unaccepted outsider: on “horrible” potato peel pie by the elderly romantic postman Eben Ramsay (Tom Courtney); about Elizabeth, the good German doctor Christian, the birth of Kit and her arrest through Amelia, Dawsey, and the herbalist-cum gin-maker Isola Pribby (Katherine Parkinson); on the evacuation of children by grandson Eli (Kit Connor) when half the population, around 20,000, disappeared and with them the hearts of the remaining half; on “Gerrybags” and “immorality” from the judgmental, frustrated Irish sounding gossip Charlotte (Bronagh Gallagher) who ran a B&B.
Slowly she realises to regain their affection she needs to understand what the war had brought to Guernsey, and what had taken from the Society. She pleads to help, for the benefit of the Society’s adorable adopted little Kit. The missing link unexpectedly turns up on the arrival of Juliet’s sophisticated and demanding US finance Markham -or Mark, V Reynolds, Jr (Glen Powell), who informs them all that Elizabeth would never be returning, as she had been shot in the woman’s concentration camp of Ravensbrück near Berlin. Juliet and Mark fly back to London not to passionate romance, but to the end of the relationship. This sudden break in turn forces her through her gay friend and editor Sidney to attempt to find her dream through what she really desires, to write the story of the Society, which is the coded message from her plan to rebuild her dream with her new man, family, and simple, but island friends. The supposedly spoilt Juliet can live her life to the full, the substitute Elizabeth – minus the potato peel pie!
A much enjoyable 5 star two hour show. All are of good sorts except for the drunkard Eddie Meares, and Charlotte. Amelia shows her total star quality when she transforms her face from a moody, angry unkept old hag attacking anything German to become a fully cooperative, likeable and smiling elder when she is convinced that Juliet is no busy-body who has no intention to take over their private world; Isola remains the simple romantic good sister with no past experiences. She still dreams after her Heathcliff, but recognises that only books can gradually replace time which is fast catching up with her. Juliet’s departure acts as a double blow, as she had become a shoulder to cry on and the conscience to get on if she wants to obtain what she desires.
The men in contrast are treated as extra voices: nice, courteous and practical gentlemen, but seen through Juliet’s eyes Dawsey is the one who is has a sparkle. Lamb and literature seem to have aroused natural hidden feelings, passions, desires, and literary talents which Juliet wishes to explore and craves after – something which perhaps at first sight seemed impossible but somewhat challenging to attempt.
The real question was why the director chose to take so much liberal artistic licence and change what was technically possible as in the book. Did he think people were so one dimensional and stupid in working out for themselves what the characters could and could not do?
To begin, Juliet lives in London 1946 where “utility” is the norm for all fabrics, clothing, and furniture; unless you found something dodgy on the black market coupons were in and most necessities – except for cigarettes, were in short supply. Instead at first she is seen happily clad, dancing the night away in a very new exquisite long bright yellow silk evening dress, much later sipping champagne in a very fashionable black gown, both likely to emerge on the haute couture cat walks in Paris in Christian Dior’s “New Look”, and to become the rage later in London, in fashion magazines, and for Gloria Guinness, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, not before February 1947. So, either she had received an unlikely visit from Dr Who, or for a moment Mike Newell saw nice colours and sound on the screen that looked good and hoped that people watching would be taken in by glitzy images rather than by correct historical facts.
Next, though the Society in the book contains more members which simply widens the details, the Mark of the book is not a faithful one girl man. In fact, Sidney knows he is trying to build up a rival publishing empire, trying to lure her away, and is prepared, joking aside, should she desire, to challenge him to a duel. It is known he has just broken one engagement, always wants to rule the nest and his woman (or armies of willing women). Despite being flattered by his attentions, the bunches of roses, the “forest of camellias”, war has not entirely passed by sweet innocent Juliet from the embraces of smooth talking US charmers with flashy suits, and plenty of dollars. She won’t be easily won over into doing something she is unhappy about. They don’t even return to London together. They end their relationship after her second refused proposal, and it is whilst on Guernsey she indirectly makes a virtual declaration in a letter to Sidney’s sister Sophie, saying she could never marry anyone who also did not love the island, and live with together an adopted Kit.
The Society, in the book, does not learn about Elizabeth’s death from Mark, but from a letter written by a contemporary in the camp, a French woman Remy Giraud who knew Elizabeth in her last days. She decides to come from Normandy to meet all Elizabeth’s friends she had happily talked about all the time. There is a growing suspicion that the pig farmer has taken a serious fancy in her, which disturbs Juliet, until Remy decides to return. The simple Isola gets asked to clean up Dawsey’s home, and help her to pick up new clues. She discovers unwittingly that amongst his keep safe there were nothing belonging to Remy, only an embroidered handkerchief with the letter J - the necessary sign which tells Juliet how to act. She allowed her heart to reign, because she knew, like Elizabeth before her, that love is never wrong.
Personally, since the story in the film is not a direct representation, but merely an enjoyable imperfect adaption of the book, I can only award the finished work 3 stars – which may seem harsh but should anyone bother to read through the original they can not help but unearth much more from Mary Ann Schaffer than Mike Newell could.
Though many of the scenes in the film were shot elsewhere, it will, like Another Mother’s Son, be a wonderful promotional visiting card for tourists to visit the island. Like in the extras in the DVD, the island is full of memories of the war years to see: the long underground tunnels, the countless fortifications of the Atlantic Wall built by Soviet and Polish POWs, of the Todt, and the many photos and memorabilia exhibited in the local museums. A few elderly survivors, those like the 5,000 children including Eli, still recount the tales they had heard from their parents, for long afraid of speaking out until collaborators were no more. Only now for them Guernsey has finally been liberated, and with it so can the memory of the real Elizabeth McKennas and the Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society be really commemorated.