Movies

Netflix’s New Movie Is Perfect Comfort Food for Fans of Downton Abbey or the Brontës

Don’t let the title scare you away from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Lily James and Michiel Huisman walk on the beach in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.
Lily James and Michiel Huisman in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.
Netflix

If ever there were a movie destined for Netflix, it’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Helmed by Four Weddings and a Funeral director Mike Newell, the film—which we’ll just call Guernsey, for brevity’s sake—wasn’t necessarily created with the streaming service in mind, seeing as it was given a more traditional theatrical run in the U.K. and elsewhere. But on Friday, Guernsey will go straight to Netflix in the U.S., and rightly so, since it’s perfect for the site’s algorithm-driven design, made with ingredients that seem selected to create the most palatable version of a particular genre. Start with a cast plucked straight from the halls of Downton Abbey, a love triangle representing the tension between city and country life, and lengthy discussions of literary staples like Charles Lamb and the Brontë sisters. Next throw in some lingering shots of the scenic English coast. Slap the word potato into the middle of its unwieldy title, and you’ve got a movie fit for “British Period Drama Featuring a Strong Female Lead.”

Guernsey takes that title from a 2008 novel written, ironically, by an American, Mary Ann Shaffer, and her niece, Annie Barrows, who finished the manuscript when Shaffer became too sick to complete it. The story, which in the novel is told entirely through letters and journal entries, follows Juliet Ashton, a London-based author who takes up correspondence with members of a peculiarly named book club on the isle of Guernsey shortly after World War II. Tasked with writing a column about reading for the Times, Juliet interviews her pen pals about life under the (real) Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, during which a handful of citizens took refuge in meetings of the (fictional) Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Before she was singing and dancing as a young, overall-clad Meryl Streep, Lily James made her name playing period-drama ingénues, with a résumé that includes Downton Abbey, BBC’s War and Peace, and a breakout performance as the star of Disney’s live-action Cinderella. Maybe that’s why she looks right at home under a 1940s-style pancake beret in Newell’s adaptation of Guernsey as Juliet. How you feel about the movie as a whole will probably depend on how you feel about James herself, whether you find her oft-knitted brows and earnest delivery endearing or irritating. (I fall into the former camp.) On the island, she manages at the very least to charm two members of the Potato Peel Pie Society: The elderly Eben (Tom Courtenay), the inventor of the society’s unappetizing titular dish, and Isola (Katherine Parkinson), an eccentric bootlegger with a fondness for Victorian novels.

The club also counts two other Downton Abbey alumnae among its members: Penelope Wilton as Amelia, whose pregnant daughter was killed when the Germans invaded, and Jessica Brown Findlay as Elizabeth, an idealist who was sent away for a rebellious act of mercy during the occupation, leaving behind a young child of her own. Fans of Downton will note the typecasting of both actors, though Wilton performs maternal grief so well that it’s hard to blame Newell for letting her do her thing. Matthew Goode rounds out the Downton reunion back in London as Juliet’s publisher Sidney, who, she coyly reveals to Isola, prefers to date Georges and Toms.

Given that Sidney spends all of his time giving Juliet pep talks over the phone or scolding his hapless secretary, leaving none for romantic escapades of any kind, I can only conclude that Juliet drops this information lest we, like Isola, think of Sidney as a viable love interest for her. She’s hardly starved for choice on that front, since her chief pen pal on Guernsey is Dawsey (Game of Thrones Michiel Huisman), a sensitive pig farmer in the mold of Far From the Madding Crowd’s Gabriel Oak—though he’s made of much blander stuff. When not dutifully raising the absent Elizabeth’s daughter, Dawsey mostly spends his days wearing sweat-soaked shirts plastered to his chest in a way that would make even Colin Firth jealous. Still, he has competition for Juliet’s affections in her brash, American fiancé, Mark (Everybody Wants Some!! scene-stealer Glen Powell).

Guernsey’s screenplay quickly abandons the book’s letter-writing premise for the sake of getting Juliet to the island as soon as possible and trims down the society to just a few members. The result is a less-complete picture of Guernsey under occupation and more of a mystery, with the missing Elizabeth’s fate at the center of it. The love triangle is brought to the forefront, too. In fact, the most interesting deviation from the source material involves Mark, who in the novel is little more than a Big American Obstacle to Juliet and Dawsey’s inevitable romance. Here, he’s wisely given a larger role and shaped into a far more sympathetic character, one who actually aids Juliet on her mission and whose worst crime is giving Juliet an engagement ring so enormous she’s embarrassed to be seen wearing it.

That’s not to say that Guernsey, a movie in which the bad guys are Nazis and the good guys talk very solemnly about the sanctity of literature, holds any mind-blowing revelations in store. Though Mark is the most compelling vertex on the love triangle, he’s still the James Marsden to Dawsey’s Ryan Gosling, and it’s never really in doubt which of them Juliet will end up with. Still, there’s something reassuring about a movie as conventional as Guernsey. Unlike the meager potato peel pie of its title, which is cobbled together from the only rations available to the islanders, the movie is comfort food through and through, as wholesome and predictable as a Sunday roast and as sickly sweet as sticky toffee pudding.