With the rash of 1940s films around at the moment, I’m a bit Second-World-War-ed out, but under duress I agreed to see The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I was doubly reluctant because its story of a young female writer working in a pleasant rural setting had already been done recently in the 2016 film Their Finest. It was also two hours long. Of course, being dragged kicking and screaming into the cinema, I absolutely loved it.
Guernsey and the Channel Islands were the only part of Britain to be occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War, and the occupation lasted a long time. The Channel Islands weren’t liberated until almost a year after D-Day, due to the fact that the German fortifications, built by imported slave labour, were just too dangerous to assault without facing huge loss of life.
Note that ‘imported’ slave labour: captives from the USSR and Eastern Europe along with Spanish Civil War refugees taken in occupied France. Not the Channel Islanders themselves. The Germans always had a soft spot for Britain. They thought we would willingingly accept their rule once Operation Sea Lion had successfully taken place and they had shot everyone who appeared in the Black Book. Thus, they didn’t want to upset us too much in their ‘model occupation’ of Jersey and Guernsey.
Thankfully, we had the British Navy, the RAF and, after a few years of doing nothing, the USA too to save us from that fate.
Nobody came to the aid of the Channel Islanders themselves who had to live cheek by jowl with their German overlords. The children having been evacuated before the invasion, the older islanders were left to themselves with little food and little else to do.
This is the background to the Potato Peel and Literary Society. Starved, the islanders concoct their own recipes, ersatz versions of the real thing, which are uniformally horrible. They have a lethal homemade gin to wash it down with, whilst reading books together.
Once the war had finished, Juliet Ashton, a successful London author, starts corresponding with a local farmer, who is desperate for help with getting new books. She is intrigued by his stories of the occupation and sets off to the islands to find out more. She joins the literary society, only to find out that all is not as cosy as in seemed in their letters.
The war has left victims in its wake, and living hand-in-glove with the occupiers has divided loyalties and broken friendships. Ashton must seek the truth about a missing member of the Society, though nobody will offer her more than hearsay.
The movie is a classic of British filmmaking, directed by Mike Newell of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame. Lily James as Juliet Ashton is almost unrecognisable from the carefree spirit that she played in Mamma Mia 2 earlier this year.
Best of all in this ensemble cast is Penelope Wilton, who gives a heartrending performance as Amelia, a woman whose life has been ravaged by the endless conflicts of the century. Wilton is one of our best actors but never gets the credit she is due, from her role as the courageous wife of Donald Woods in Cry Freedom to playing a dreadful little Englander in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
If there is one gripe about the film it is that it wasn’t actually filmed on Guernsey, nor even on the Channel Islands. So film fans looking to visit the towering cliffs and crashing surf of this movie are going to be disappointed. You have to go to Devon for that.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a little gem, and one that lets us ponder what would have happened in we too had been caught up in the Nazi occupation.