Mike Newell views war from a dif­fer­ent an­gle

The Australian - - ARTS - PHILIPPA HAWKER

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

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