Mike Newell views war from a different angle
In the past 12 months, World War II has come to cinema screens in some epic contexts: Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, for example. In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, however, wartime events take place in a small community, on a small scale. It is a story of German occupation, but it’s also the tale of a reading group, a young writer and a tightly held secret.
This scale — and the possibilities of a lighter touch and comic notes — drew director Mike Newell ( Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) to the project. When it comes to World War II stories, he says, certain things are often overlooked. “Nobody knew about the small stories, nobody knew about the women’s stories. I was born during the war, so I can just remember the weird food and the rationing and the coal that gave no heat, all these little domestic pinpricks that added up to a sort of misery. Those stories have been untold for about 50 years.”
On the Channel Islands, says Newell, German occupation had grim ramifications but it also involved everyday impositions. “They took the pigs away, they took the radios away, they made them talk in German. They made them drive on the right-hand side of the road.” This meant people “were annoyed in a small, domestic, parish-pump way, and that was part of the character of the whole thing. Out of this you could get some funny things happening as well as some tragic things.”
For Lily James, who plays the film’s central character, writer Juliet Ashton, World War II was familiar subject matter. In Darkest Hour, she played Winston Churchill’s secretary; in The Exception (2016) she was a young Dutch woman working in the exiled kaiser’s household in 1940. This meant she had initial reservations about playing Juliet. When the role first came up a couple of years ago, she says, “I thought it wasn’t the next film I wanted to do. But when it came back round again, I loved the characters so much I couldn’t resist it, it really got under my skin.”
When we first meet Juliet, she is celebrating literary success in postwar London, but feeling a little out of place and out of synch with the times. Out of the blue she receives a letter from a stranger, and the correspondence leads her to visit Guernsey, where she meets the members of the unconventional reading group that gives the film its name. She learns about their wartime experiences — depicted in flashbacks — and becomes aware of a mystery surrounding the fate of their group’s founder, Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay).
It’s a mystery that the members of the group have not resolved, and the lack of resolution weighs