A movie as snug and sweet and congenitally British as a tea cozy, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society also feels like it could be defined by a word from their Scandinavian neighbors: hygge. The Danes have turned the concept of curated hominess and warm socks into a sort of lifestyle cottage industry over the last few years, and now director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mona Lisa Smile) has manifested it in a movie — the kind you don’t so much watch as wear like a slanket.
Lily James stars in his adaptation of the bestselling 2008 novel as Juliet Ashton, a writer in post-WWII London who has found far more success writing housewifely fluff under a pseudonym than with her own work, which leans more toward critical biographies of lesser Brontë sisters. Her editor, Sidney (The Crown’s Matthew Goode), thinks she should relax and enjoy her good fortune; her affable GI boyfriend Mark (Glen Powell, as strappingly all-American as the astronaut he played in Hidden Figures) just thinks she looks really pretty in a dress.
When an unusual fan letter arrives from a book group in Guernsey — a small, impossibly scenic island off the coast of Normandy — Juliet jumps at the chance to to pay them a visit and leave her promotional duties behind. The source of the letter is Dawsey Adams (Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman), a local pig farmer who loves Shakespeare’s sonnets and looks he was born to model stubble and mud boots.
This is probably bad news for Mark, but it only makes Juliet more fascinated by their club, the literary-potato business of the title. It turns out that it was formed during the German occupation of the island by members including drowsy local postman Eben (Tom Courtenay), grieving widow Isola (Penelope Wilton), and mainland expat Elizabeth (Jessica Findlay Brown), a young idealist who can’t hide her firebrand opinions. Officially, they’re all there to read and eat rationed root vegetables; really, though, it’s a subterfuge to drink bathtub gin, feast on forbidden pork loins, and forge their own defiant bit of community away from the Germans’ joyless rule.
There’s some dark mystery involving Elizabeth’s eventual disappearance from the island, and a much lighter one in Juliet and Dawsey’s will-they-won’t-they. (Incidentally, the movie is also at least half a Downton Abbey reunion between the presence of James, Goode, Findlay Brown, and Wilton, but maybe that’s just a statistical inevitability in England’s acting pool).
As much as the war and its shattered aftermath are central to the plot, Newell tends to let most of the real ugliness happen tastefully offscreen. Instead, he’s made a sort of gentle, tender-hearted love letter to the romantic ideal of an era; a film whose unwieldy name and sad lack of scratch-and-sniff on all those sweeping seaside vistas is by far the most challenging thing about it. B+