While many films have been made about Britain in the Second World War, not many of them have been about the very English Crown dependency that was occupied by the German forces – the Channel Islands.
There was a tv drama series “Island at War” back in 2004 and last year “Another Mother’s Son” in which Jenny Seagrove played a woman who hides a concentration camp victim from the Nazis in wartime Jersey. That was based on a true life story. “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” is from a novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows and Mike Newell’s film of that is a good story well told.
Set in 1947 with flashbacks to the occupation years, Lily James plays Juliet, a writer, who receives a letter from Guernsey pig farmer, Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), who has found Juliet’s name and address in a second-hand copy of Charles Lamb’s essays, in which he mentions the society of the title.
Intrigued she sets off to Guernsey to meet the members of the club, which was invented in the occupation years by the quick witted Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Finlay), when she and her friends are stopped and questioned by German soldiers. The group have actually been indulging in a forbidden feast of illegal roast pig, which they have hidden from the Germans, all meat and most other foods having been hi-jacked by the occupying force, leaving the native islanders virtually starving.
The pie referred to in the title, which must be one of the longest in film history, was the staple diet of the islanders – potato and nothing but potato decorated with the peel. Having invented the club though to save the bacon they weren’t supposed to be eating, Elizabeth and the others then make it a reality, meeting regularly to read and discuss works of literature and relieve the oppression of the occupation years.
So at first the story Juliet is after appears to be a charming and sometimes comic one of eccentricity and the power of literature to support the spirit of people under duress. Elizabeth however is no longer there in the group, none of her friends will talk about her and as Juliet becomes closer to them, the dark side of the invasion, the day to day reality of living under occupation and the tragedies it created starts to emerge.
The story is full of convincing and often moving detail, such as the evacuation of the island’s children to the mainland just hours before the invasion, along with the disturbing sight of Nazi troops marching through streets past red letter boxes and familiar stores such as Boots the chemist and of the concentration camp slaves being abused by their captors.
It is primarily a romance and a story of heroism, largely though by no means completely bypassing the issue of those who collaborated with the Germans.
Juliet herself has three romantic options. Her publisher, old family friend Sidney (Matthew Goode); her American army fiancé Mark (Glen Powell), who helps her find out what happened to Elizabeth and her growing attraction to Dawsey. The other members of the club, eager to protect their secrets, are post master Eben (Tom Courtenay), lonely spinster Isola (Katherine Parkinson) and Amelia (Penelope Wilton), who emerges as a tragic figure, who has lost everyone she has ever loved to the two world wars.
While the film may perhaps receive criticism for whitewashing the collaboration issue, its acknowledgment of the courage of those who suffered under the occupation is well over due. It is above all a very engaging piece of cinema, clear and straightforward in its telling and well acted by a sterling cast. It also gives us a disturbing taste of what life might have been like had mainland Britain ever been under Nazi occupation.