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The Nazi occupation of British territory during World War II might seem an unlikely setting for a feel-good, heartwarming story. But The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Netflix) is a delightful two-hour escape, with drama, humor, and a cast that will be familiar to many.
The movie is based on a 2008 book written by Mary Ann Shaffer after a brief visit to Guernsey, an English Channel island near the French mainland. The author was intrigued to learn about the island’s occupation from 1940 to 1945. Despite the chance to evacuate, Guernsey’s residents largely stayed put, with the exception of most of the children, who were shipped off to England. The Germans fortified the island with stout defenses, bringing in slave labor from Poland and Russia to build watchtowers along the shoreline.
The opening scene is set in London in 1946. Juliet Ashton (played by Lily James) seems to have it all. Her career as an author is beginning to take off. Life in England after the Allied victory is full of joy, and her rich, handsome American boyfriend has just proposed, with the promise of a fabulous future life together in New York City. In the midst of all this, a letter arrives from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), a pig farmer living on Guernsey.
Dawsey had found Juliet’s address in a copy of a book by Charles Lamb that was a comfort to him during the occupation. In these pre-Amazon, pre-internet days, he asks if Juliet can help him to find more books by the same author, to be shared with the members of the intriguingly named Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Juliet is happy to help, and in a series of letters, learns enough about the society to tantalize her: She must visit Guernsey and find out more about how this book club came to be, and how its members used literature and the bonds of friendship to help get them through dark and difficult days. Juliet decides that this would make the perfect subject for a London Times article.
The first meeting of the literary society that Juliet attends makes clear that she will need to earn the trust of the members before she can learn more. What secrets are they hiding, and why can’t they talk about them now that the war is over? Why won’t they allow her to write about them for the newspaper? Gradually, the Society members open up to Juliet, and she learns about one of their founders, Elizabeth, an inspirational figure and an outspoken friend to the downtrodden.
Elizabeth was indignant at the mistreatment of prisoners of war by the Nazis and showed great courage to help those under that yoke. Yet she did not judge the occupiers as a whole: Her friendship with one young soldier blossomed into romance. Juliet wonders: Where is Elizabeth, and what will become of the daughter she left behind?
This is not the kind of movie one watches for its twists and turns: It has a fairly predictable plot. Nevertheless, the story is well-told, and the costumes and scenery of 1940s London and Guernsey are beautifully filmed. How different life was just a few generations ago is brought out again and again, in both civilized London, and even more so on the more idyllic Guernsey. Consider the words of Juliet’s landlady as she makes her way up the stairs: “No more typing now, Ms. Ashton. It’s well after 10!”
Fans of Downton Abbey will find familiar faces among the cast. Leading actress Lily James played Lady Rose MacClare on the popular series. Viewers will also see Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil), and Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley), along with other familiar faces and voices.
The movie will not win any Oscars and did not break any new ground in the art of moviemaking. Yet it makes for an enjoyable evening of entertainment, with a few tugs at the heartstrings. A few references to extramarital relations make it less suitable for younger viewers.