If one didn’t know any better, they might mistake The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for a Fall Out Boy or Panic! At the Disco song — one from the bands’ hypothetical folk-driven albums that would come later in their careers, one that “really, like, captures the feeling of resting in the tall grass and reading a collection of Ernest Hemingway poems” or “takes, you know, the intrinsic pull we all feel toward Mother Nature and turns it into music.” One could even confuse it for a cooking show where the chef specializes in potato-based creations. (Side note: How can we make that a real thing? Asking for… myself.) Point being: There’s a lot to unpack upon first glance with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, arguably the nominal equivalent of a quadruple-barreled surname.
But, as it happens, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is more simplistic than its hefty title suggests it would be — though that isn’t to say the film lacks complexity.
Adapted from Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ 2008 historical novel of the same name, the film follows Juliet Ashton (an especially radiant Lily James), a writer who has tasted the sweetness of her major success in releasing a book under the pseudonym Izzy Bickerstaff and is craving more, particularly since her first real-deal authorial effort wound up a poorly received misfire. Juliet’s best friend-slash-publisher Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode) proves the vehicle for her second course, having commissioned her to pen pieces about literature for The Times Literary Supplement. She’s clearly talented, her planned England-wide book tour and glistening new contract proof of that, but what might her first Times story focus on?
A little island called Guernsey, nestled in the English channel off the coast of Normandy, is Juliet’s answer. Well, partly. The young writer’s real rejoinder comes in the form of four friends who, five years earlier at the height of World War II in 1941, formed a sham literary society one evening when German soldiers discovered them scampering around the island, filling their bellies with the meat of a stolen pig and getting gut-flippingly drunk on homemade gin, long after curfew. Faced with the threat of arrest, Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay) quickly offers a false reason as to why foursome were out so late: they were returning home from their book club, called “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” an homage to postmaster Eben’s (Tom Courtenay) comically unpalatable culinary creation.
What started as a ruse to keep themselves out of trouble transformed into something real — and as Juliet ponders what she’ll contribute to The Times Literary Supplement and suffers a flashback of the war bombing that killed her parents and destroyed her home, the lives of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society members and the writer known as Izzy Bickerstaff suddenly collide in a winsome and warm, but slightly wonted, way.
One of the group’s members, a pig farmer named Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), sends Juliet a letter inquiring about the best place in England to buy a book by Charles Lamb, the author who penned Essays of Elia — Juliet’s copy of which Dawsey has in his possession. He’s sure to mention his status in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and that the club meets once a week, on Friday evenings.
A short-lived written tête-à-tête and one gift — Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare from Juliet to Dawsey — in exchange for details on the society’s origin story later, and Juliet finds herself leaving her Army man boyfriend Mark (Glen Powell, who’s less charming here than he was in Netflix’s gloriously gooey rom-com Set It Up) for a new adventure on Guernsey. Just before she boards the ferry for the island, Juliet enters another new phase of her life: becoming the future Mrs. Reynolds after Marks pops the question.
When she arrives on Guernsey, Juliet meets the infamous Eben; bootlegger and psychic Isola Pribbey (Katherine Parkinson); the designated mother figure of the group, Amelia Maugery (an astounding Penelope Wilton); and, of course, the strapping Dawsey. Missing from the bunch is Elizabeth, the society’s founding member, who is said to be overseas.
Gin is drank, potato peel pie is eaten (but not entirely enjoyed), and stories of war are shared — but then Juliet slips and reveals that she intends to write about the literary club for The Times.
After receiving backlash from the group — they’re evidently wounded, harboring pain they don’t wish to share with the world — Juliet momentarily decides to write about the German occupation instead. That is, until she stumbles upon a mystery that begs to be solved: the truth behind Elizabeth’s whereabouts and the parentage of the daughter, Kit, she left in Dawsey’s care on Guernsey.
Director Mike Newell, who twice made international audiences fall for kind-hearted Brits with his 1994 romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral and his 2005 entry into the Harry Potter film series Goblet of Fire, stitches together the past and the present, maintains the structural integrity of the double-layered plot, and weaves through emotional epiphanies with ease.
However, as well-crafted as it is, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society‘s top tier unravels in a familiar fashion. From the moment the rugged, broad-shouldered man locks eyes with the doe-eyed writer, audiences will likely hop to the conclusion that Dawsey and Juliet fall deeper for one another the more time she spends on Guernsey and that Juliet will ultimately abandon her approaching nuptials to Mark. It would hardly be a spoiler to hint at the validity of that assumption.
The underbelly of the film, though, is darkly captivating — a contrast to the whimsical tone that Newell upholds throughout the film’s two-plus-hour run. As Juliet becomes more fixated on finding out what happened to Elizabeth, so too do viewers. It’s a fun ride made even more enjoyable by James’ sparkling performance.
Those expecting The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to be anything more than a delightfully cozy, wistful romance-turned-mystery-turned-romance-again movie will be underwhelmed. But those hoping for a gentle slice of cinema — one that, pretty bafflingly, stays buoyant even with the presence of Nazis, concentration camps, and a harrowing subplot and never doesn’t feel very, very British — The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will effortlessly fulfill their desires.