With daily news of Covid, calamities, and climate change, these are arguably the worst of times in recent memory.
And to make matters worse, not since WW II has Europe and the world seen war like it’s now seeing as Russia pummels Ukraine.
It does however make this long overdue film review of mine a little more poignant and circumspect.
Long overdue, because my last film review was posted nearly a year ago.
Poignant, because the film’s setting has as backdrop the unwelcome German occupation of the Bailiwick of Jersey and Bailiwick of Guernsey (these were two British Crown dependent islands in the English Channel, near the coast of Normandy).
Circumspect, because the film’s protagonists are two people from different worlds (urban London and rural Guernsey) that drew me to them because of a mutual love (reading), a heroine martyr, and my deep loathing for anything to do with war.
…The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)
One late evening in 1941, soldiers from the German forces occupying the island of Guernsey stopped native Dawsey and his friends on their way home for breaching curfew.
To avoid arrest, they lied, saying they had just returned from a book club meeting. When pressed, they cooked up a hilarious name for the club, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”.
Five years later and after the war ended, we find protagonist, author Juliet Ashton (played by English actress Lily James), promoting her latest book as well as seeking out stories about the benefits of literature to write about forThe Times Literary Supplement. Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey (played by Dutch actor Michiel Huisman) who has come into possession of her copy of Charles Lamb‘s Essays of Elia and who wants to know where to find a bookshop in England to buy another book by the same author.
He tells her he is part of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”, which piqued Juliet’s curiosity and eventually led her to pay a visit to Guernsey to find out about the society and how it came into being.
In the second half of the film, Juliet gets to spend time with the society and know more about each member, including Elizabeth McKenna the founder, who was unfortunately captured and later killed by the Germans for harbouring a fugitive and defending a POW. She had to leave her toddler Kit behind with good friend Dawsey, who became the girl’s pseudo-dad.
As the story progresses, love blossoms between Juliet and Dawsey. Though there were some challenges, including a suave American suitor Mark Reynolds (played by American actor Glen Powell) standing in the way of true love, the ending is a happy one for both Juliet and Dawsey.
I hate war, yet…
Now I’ve always hated war. And anything that reminds me of it. Including the two-and-a-half years my nation mandated for all males 18 and above to serve in the armed forces back in the late 1980s. Even now I try daily to block out memories of those torturous years I spent in smelly fatigues cleaning AR15s!
No surprise I steer clear of anything to do with war.
The problem is I’m also an avid reader, writer, film buff, and parent to boys who one day must serve. And despite my sentiments towards the subject, war is something everyone has an opinion about, so there are no lack of books and movies about it no matter where I turn!
Plus, the whole good vs evil, against all odds, self-sacrifice for the greater good, etc story arcs are the marrow that runs unceasingly through the spine of every war tale. Pray tell who can resist, right?!
Thus, in spite of myself, I’ve consumed my fair share of films and novels about war. Many have since become perennial faves. Books like The Diary of Anne Frank and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (which I reviewed recently). Films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, The Pianist, Hacksaw Ridge and TV mini-series like Band of Brothers.
And every now and then of course the topic of war intersects with my love for writing. Like it does with this film, based on a 2008 novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows; and made by the acclaimed director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pushing Tin and Mona Lisa Smile).
So naturally I must make space for it here in my weekly blog!
I love writing, so…
I’ve always had a soft spot for movies about writers and reading circles. (“Shakespeare in Love“, “Dead Poets Society“, “The Jane Austen Book Club” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me” anyone?).
As a writer myself, I’m always curious where and how other fellow readers and writers find their literary muse. These films help me fill in the blanks.
Like when Dawsey wrote in one of his letters to Juliet that “…our Friday night book club became our refuge. A private freedom to feel the world growing darker around you, but you only need a candle to see new worlds unfold.”
Yes, for this mouthful-of-a-film, the impetus for reading and writing for the characters arose from their fear of arrest and death. This fear pushed a group of friends to dust off old books from shelves in an abandoned bookstore; pulling out and reading classics from Austen, Trollope, Yeats and other literary giants. All at first for the sake of appearing to be a book club; but later to seek solace among one another, and restore faith in troubled times.
In one amusing scene, a German soldier assigned to “supervise” the club dozes off during the club’s reading of Northanger Abbey by Austen. Eben, a member of the club, then saunters over to whisper aloud these lines into the comatose caretaker’s stupor:
“Manners is what holds a society together. At bottom, propriety is concern for other people. When that goes out the window, the gates of hell are surely opened, and ignorance is king.”
Like the war going on right now in Ukraine, where ignorance and a comatose-like trance to war’s accompanying atrocities (like Kit becoming an orphan), is clearly displayed by the current oppressors.
As we look back some day on this chapter of humanity’s checkered history, it will no doubt prove fuel for more literary creations, as war and writing intersects.
When that time comes, I pray the ending will be as hopeful as this movie’s was.
One thought on “Film Review: When writing and war intersect”
Wow, I’ve never heard of this film, but I am now super intrigued. My favourite movie about writing tends to be Stranger Than Fiction for some reason. I’ve heard great things about Midnight In Paris too, though I don’t think those films have the element of reading circles. Great share here, Kelvin. Thanks for this post!