Dir. Mike Newell. Starring Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Katherine Parkinson
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will, I hope, go down in history as the Saving Private Ryan of period romantic dramas. What both movies share is a tremendous sense that you should feel something and a complete inability to actually give us a reason to feel anything at all. The last scene of Private Ryan is the sort of unsophisticated tripe that movies like They Were Expendable had outgrown better than fifty years earlier, and yet the filmmakers are certain that we will shed a single, photogenic tear for old Ryan’s salute for Captain Miller, hoping that he’s earned it. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (I’ve had less pain chewing tinfoil than saying that out loud) knows we’ve seen other period romantic dramas, and hopes that we might pick up where they have left off. We know that the first man is never the right man, that our heroine must be worthwhile if she is cute and has a shred of empathy, and that someone who reads must have depths within him or her. That the first man seems like a perfectly decent guy, that most of us have belly button lint with more personality than our heroine, and that reading is not a substitute for morality appears to have escaped Potato Peel en masse. That this mealy Downton Abbey spinoff has been received with warmth, more or less, is about as dispiriting as the fact that people voluntarily watched fifty-two episodes of “Good Help is Hard to Find.”
For the sheer number of good actors who are hanging about in Potato Peel, on the surface it seems incredible that none of them give any kind of worthwhile performance. However, everyone rapidly sinks into his or her type or, at least, what that type is supposed to be. Lily James plays the audience surrogate, although I desperately wanted her boat to sink at multiple points in the film. Juliet Ashton (barf barf retch what a name) is an utterly blank canvas on purpose, because if there were a spark of life in her then it would be that much harder for us to identify with her. Just as some people go to superhero movies to identify with whatever omnipotent Blast Hardcheese is gracing the sequel, some of us doubtless watch period romantic dramas to identify with whatever mildly intelligent and plainly beautiful Elizabeth Swann is reading a book. I don’t think we have anyone to blame but ourselves for either abomination of characterization, which is just fanservice by other means. Michiel Huisman is the reasonably handsome man with mystique, except there’s nothing mysterious about him at all. Tom Courtenay is the wise old man, and boy howdy does Tom Courtenay deserve better than “wise old man.” Matthew Goode is the gay best friend who conveniently spins his life around the audience surrogate’s problems. Katherine Parkinson is the friend who is neither attractive nor normal enough to serve as a threat for whatever romantic forays the audience surrogate is making. There’s a part in the movie where Parkinson’s Isola tells James’ Juliet that where she is only beautiful on the inside, Juliet is beautiful on the outside too. It’s 2018: parents, tell your middle-schoolers to write for Netflix. Penelope Wilton is the old woman who has lost all her family and now exists to be haunted. Almost worst of all, Glen Powell is the fiance who isn’t right for the audience surrogate we are supposed to glom our feelings onto like snot in a tissue. (There’s even a super-judgy Christian lady who gets the “Shouldn’t Christians love each other?” speech from Juliet. I’d actually never encountered that line of thought before! I think if more evangelicals just hear someone tell them that their behavior isn’t very Christian, we might see a sea change in the way evangelicals behave. That will definitely convince them they’re wrong, you betcha.) What all of them are missing, with the possible exception of Powell’s Mark Reynolds, is that combination of individuality, motivation, and personality that makes a character worth experiencing.
Mark is an officer in the American army, filthy rich, as charming and handsome as Glen Powell, and most importantly, not a jerk. This is important because in virtually all other movies like this one, the guy we know our audience surrogate is going to leave is a jerk. Here’s a pros and cons list I’ve come up with for Mark Reynolds, which does not make him seem very much like a jerk:
That Juliet will leave Mark is inevitable; the movie inflects their encounters together with a sense of doom from the start. When they are out at a party together in 1946, Mark is having a good time while Juliet feels that she is blinded by all the light at the end of the tunnel. Over and over again the movie makes it clear that they are not right for each other, which is fine. It’s more than fine. It’s almost an opportunity for the movie to do something different, which would of course completely defeat the entire ethos that the film tries to create. Imagine a Potato Peel which doesn’t string us along to an inevitable conclusion to their relationship, which even ends like they know they’re on a reality TV show. Imagine a Potato Peel which doesn’t believe that Mark builds some kind of dramatic tension. (He did for me, I guess, in the sense that I yelled at the TV a lot because Juliet is just clueless.) Having Mark around only to ditch him, as we all know will happen, reminded me of those rec league baseball games in which one team gets totally blown out by the third inning. Usually you can get ten-runned after five, but Potato Peel decides that we should play all seven innings so the final score can be 15-0 instead of 10-0.
That Juliet is intended as our surrogate is clear from the get-go, and it becomes painfully clear when the film stops pretending she’s a character and replaces all of her declarative statements with interrogative ones. (I’d have to go back and rewatch this movie to prove this hypothesis, which ain’t likely, but there may be a ten minute stretch in the middle of her stay on Guernsey where that might even be literally true.) At this point, Juliet’s primary characteristic is a crippling survivor’s guilt that the movie mistakes for nobility. Because her parents were killed in the Blitz, she sees their untimely deaths in all of the battered buildings of London. Guernsey, which was occupied by the Nazis, is catnip for her sense that her postwar success is somehow disrespectful to the people killed during the conflict. It seems like the right thing would be to send her to therapy, where she might gain some perspective or learn strategies to help her overcome that guilt. What Potato Peel leans into with its whole heart is that she needs catharsis, and to get catharsis she should go where everyone was hurt more than her. (This is a terribly romantic point of view, and it’s also about as emotionally intelligent as locking a suicidal individual in a room with various lethal objects so they can look their triggers in their faces.) That more than one character literally calls the story of Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay) Juliet’s story is pure narcissism on top of survivor’s guilt.
Therein lies the single biggest problem with Potato Peel: its main character is dead weight. The story doesn’t need her in the slightest. For the sake of unraveling a mystery rather than telling a story, Potato Peel has Juliet on screen all the time instead of simply telling Elizabeth’s story. In superior works, like The Great Gatsby, you can get away with it because the character telling the story is more interesting than the story itself. Juliet is no Nick Carraway; she is barely even a foggy mirror. Elizabeth is kindhearted, which is her great downfall. More than once she does something risky or dangerous or self-sacrificing, and in the end it lands her in Ravensbruck, where she is executed for striking a guard who beat a child. Although she appears to be the Joan of Arc for occupied Guernsey, Elizabeth is no more sympathetic than her vapid successor. Guided by an All Lives Matter approach, she is willing to risk her life for the slave labor the Nazis import and gives her life to interdict suffering for an innocent. She also becomes the lover of a Nazi soldier and bears his child. (It’s okay, though. He’s a good person who helps birth a calf and likes reading, so he’s definitely just a Resistance member in waiting who happens to wear a swastika to work. Potato Peel wants to chat about the “good German” for five minutes, but refuses to engage in the trope with the energy or nuance found in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Hiroshima mon amour, and especially Le silence de la mer.) What Elizabeth has on Juliet is the fact that she is an active character, who, regardless of what the movie seems to think, was more interesting alive than dead.