The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (12A)
Funny Cow (15)
As if The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society were not enough of a mouthful, it comes from the producers of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the director of Four Weddings And A Funeral.
The sides of buses might not offer enough space for the marketing campaign; they should consider goods trains.
In fact, it was a book before it was a film, the first and only novel written by a librarian from West Virginia called Mary Ann Shaffer, who died in 2008 shortly before it was published.
I can’t speak for the book, but on screen it doesn’t seem like a story conceived by an American. It is a thoroughly British tale, which unfolds in 1946, partly in London, but mostly on Guernsey. There are occasional flashbacks to the Channel Islands in wartime, during the German occupation.
Lily James arrives in Guernsey in Potato Peel Pie
Maxine Peake with Paddy Considine in Funny Cow
The film is probably best described as a romance and a mystery rolled into one, not always convincingly, although it is as easily digestible as a mug of cocoa on a Sunday evening. Indeed, if ever a visit to the cinema could feel like a lazy Sunday night in front of the telly, that’s the comfort blanket under which we are encouraged to snuggle.
Pertinently, the film is also something of a Downton Abbey reunion, with Lily James leading a cast that includes Penelope Wilton, Jessica Brown Findlay and Matthew Goode. Reading my notes, I see that during one of the longueurs — and in the course of two hours-plus there are several — I idly pondered what might be the collective noun for Downton actors. Answers on a sepia postcard. My wife favours ‘a kedgeree’.
Anyway, James plays Juliet Ashton, a doe-eyed metropolitan beauty who also happens to be a slightly reluctant writer of best-selling adventure stories, and who is swept off her dainty feet by a dashing Yank (Glen Powell).
Juliet’s gilded life is tarnished only by the memory of her parents, killed by a German bomb, plus the odd dose of writer’s block.
But mostly she manages to have a ripping time in post-war London, leaving the management of her increasingly successful career to her handsome and urbane literary agent Sidney (Goode).
He is devoted to her, and she to him, but he is gay . . . and not in the 1946 sense of the word. The Channel Islands are not remotely on Juliet’s radar until she receives a speculative letter from a Guernsey pig-farmer named Dawsey Adams (Dutch actor Michiel Huisman), who tells her about his book club and its unusual origins.
Conveniently, a flashback has already explained its bizarre name, invented late at night in a country lane to justify to the Nazi occupiers why Dawsey and a gaggle of fellow islanders were breaking curfew.
Juliet and Dawsey strike up a correspondence driven by their mutual love of books and soon she heads for Guernsey to write a newspaper article about the society.
There, she finds that one of the founders, a spirited lass called Elizabeth (Brown Findlay), got herself into a bit of a pickle during the occupation and disappeared almost without trace. That’s the mystery with which Juliet wrestles, though no more energetically than she might grapple with a jammed typewriter key.
More significantly, she also finds that Dawsey the pig-farmer is a bit of all right. Another mystery — why he speaks with a slight Amsterdam accent — occurs only to us, the audience. Did he grow up in the only Dutch-speaking part of Guernsey?
Never mind. That question is soon trumped by another one. Will Juliet stay faithful to her sophisticated American back in the city, to whom she is now engaged, or will she let Dawsey bring home the bacon?
The answer is never really in doubt, though the film keeps us waiting while Juliet is slowly gathered to the bosom of Dawsey’s friends, played with relish and charm by Tom Courtenay (lovable local postmaster), Wilton (stern but with a heart of gold, as in Downton) and a scene-stealing Katherine Parkinson as a gin-soaked eccentric.
Throughout all this, the score soars and simpers in all the right places, while the scenery looks absolutely radiant. I dare say the book makes more of the bonding power of literature, but veteran director Mike Newell lets that message melt away as, with moderate success, he swaddles us in gentle escapism.
■ There is nothing gentle about Funny Cow, set mainly in the Seventies, in which Maxine Peake gives a ferocious, bravura performance as the title character, whose actual name is never revealed. She is a graduate of the school of very hard knocks, bullied in childhood by an abusive father (Stephen Graham), and in adulthood by a drink-sodden husband (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the screenplay). She seems imprisoned by her background. But she has a sharp Yorkshire wit and yearns to be a stand-up comedian.
At first, Funny Cow appears to be leading us to the kind of resolution we saw in Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine, Billy Elliot . . . all those films in which working-class Northerners raised to expect a life of narrow horizons are set free by their talent or force of personality. But Funny Cow isn’t that kind of story.
Peake’s character is a survivor, and it’s clear that she’s destined for more success than the only stand-up she knows (Alun Armstrong, in superb, lugubrious form), a sad, disillusioned failure, who assures her that she’ll never conquer the unforgiving world of working men’s clubs.
‘Women aren’t funny,’ he says, ‘I don’t know why, they’re just not.’
Except she is, even if she has to tell racist and homophobic gags to prove it.
However, it’s equally clear, from early on, that Adrian Shergold’s film won’t end with us bursting out of the cinema feeling full of inspiration and love.
It is resolutely downbeat, yet there is so much to admire, including Richard Hawley’s music, a lovely turn from Paddy Considine as a genteel bookshop owner, and fleeting but memorable cameos by John Bishop as an Elvis impersonator with his own hound dog, and Vic Reeves as a rubbish ventriloquist.
Teen fantasy to leave you in good spirits…
Every Day (12A)
Aimed squarely at teens and young adults, Every Day is a romantic fantasy adapted for the screen, from a novel of the same name, by Jesse Andrews.
He also wrote the novel Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, and the subsequent screenplay for the excellent film version, so he has an impressive pedigree and it shows. Every Day, directed by Michael Sucsy, bowls along likably.
The idea is that a benign spirit wakes up every day in the form of a different American teenager. One day it might be male, the next female.
It could be black, white, fat, slim, but whatever body it inhabits, it spends 24 hours being the best version of that person it can be.
When it injects decency and compassion into her normally boorish boyfriend, 16-year-old Rhiannon (Angourie Rice, pictured) then continues to fall in love with it in every subsequent form it takes.
Aimed squarely at teens and young adults, Every Day is a romantic fantasy adapted for the screen, from a novel of the same name, by Jesse Andrews
For a high-concept fantasy to work perfectly, as films such as Big (1988) and Groundhog Day (1993) did all those years ago, it must sweep you along, posing no questions that can’t be satisfactorily answered.
Every Day doesn’t quite achieve that. It too often trips over its own rather unwieldy premise. But it has energy and charm, and it’s always nice to see an inversion of the standard horror-film trope of good people being possessed by evil spirits.
Helen and Donald’s double act goes on and on and on
The Leisure Seeker (15)
Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland, in their first film together for nearly 30 years, sounds like an enticing double-act.
But be warned. Mirren isn’t often miscast, yet she fails to convince in this wincingly mawkish, ‘bittersweet’ comedy, adapted from a novel of the same name, about a couple in their twilight years heading on one final road trip.
Even with shapeless clothes and a bad wig, she looks far too spry to be an old woman at death’s door, as the script intends. And while the great Dame can essay an American accent with the best of them, it was a mistake to make her a fading South Carolina belle. Her Charleston vowels fade in and out like a radio station with a dodgy signal.
Mirren and Sutherland play Ella and John Spencer, who set off from their New England home in their antiquated ‘Leesure Seeker’, a 1975 Winnebago, without telling their two rather prissy grown-up children. They’re heading for Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, Florida.
Woes: Mirren and Sutherland
John is a long-retired English teacher now in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease. But like Ella, director Paolo Virzi doesn’t know quite how to handle his dementia, mining it for laughs one minute, and for poignancy the next. Meanwhile, Ella is maddeningly voluble; she simply will not shut up. Nor will he as soon as he finds a waitress he thinks might want to listen to his theories about Hemingway.
Most don’t, of course, until, waddya know, he encounters one who did The Old Man And The Sea as her college dissertation.
In the spirit of all bad road-trip films, the Spencers encounter just about every conceivable misadventure. A lecture from a traffic cop, check. A few dangerous swerves, check. A hold-up by a couple of desperadoes, check.
As they proceed, John drifts in and out of lucidity, but increasingly she seems like the one with the bad memory, looking tragically pained every time he forgets his own children’s names, then beaming with adoration when he finds some sustained clarity, as if his condition keeps slipping her mind as well as his.
As all this goes on — and on, and on — we learn more and more about their long marriage, which includes one great rattling skeleton in John’s closet.
We also learn that Ella’s first boyfriend 60 or so years earlier was black. In South Carolina, in the Fifties? Really? If she was a lifelong card-carrying liberal then maybe, just maybe. But she’s fiercely Republican. Like so much else in this well-intentioned but woefully disappointing film, it doesn’t stack up.