Other reports before I ventured alone (everyone curiously had other plans?) to my town’s plush new little multiplex on Saturday night had set it at fair to middling – part mystery, part love triangle, unfolding with the gentility of a Sunday evening BBC drama. And they would not be wrong with that description.
But the added sparkle for me comes not just with my interest in the era but the fact I grew up with a deep love for words, escaped the real world in my books and went on to have the perfect job that heroine Juliet Ashton warmly refers to as ‘sitting indoors, always near a teapot’; a writer. I also respond to a bit of whimsy every now and again. Don’t judge me.
The action at first flashes back and forth between the malnourished Nazi-occupied Guernsey of 1941 (although likely to do wonders for the Channel Island tourist trade this summer, actually shot in Bristol and Devon) and champagne-soaked austerity London in 1946.
Juliet (a poised and empathetic Lily James, who showed how at home she feels in this period during Darkest Hour) is getting rich from the tally-ho fiction she’s been scribbling under a male nom de plume to keep people smiling during the war. To the untrained eye, she has a lovely life – acclaimed author, glamorous American fiancé, the ability to buy chandelier-stuffed Kensington apartments and deliveries of fresh flowers every day. She is not unhappy, but she is restless. Something is missing. Her soul is yearning.
She needs a cracking story to tell and, knock me down with a feather if one does not land in her lap.
The first of zero surprises in this film. But sometimes, just sometimes, you want stories to go the way they used to and feel like they are supposed to. No killer twists. No seismic shocks. Just as it is. And this one does just that.
Juliet’s decision to write her name in a book that ends up with a dishy pig farmer in Guernsey (Michiel Huisman, who had me wondering about a Guernsey accent, but I actually think he was just struggling to bury his Dutch timbre) so begins the chain of events. And said bucolic brooder Dawsey Adams pens a beautiful letter to her on the mainland to request help sourcing another title. Ink curled-correspondence ensues and he tells her about the moment the society was born.
It was Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay) who delivered the title on demand when she and fellow book club members and hog roast scoffers were caught out after curfew by German soldiers. Under pressure, she glanced at the repulsive pie baked held by sweetly-dithery postmaster Eben Ramsey (Tom Courtenay) and mumbles. The Huns react precisely as anyone on nodding terms with sanity would – they turn their heels on the cobbles and walk briskly away.
Interest piqued, Juliet buys her ferry ticket and accepts an assignment for The Times about reading.
Now Elizabeth is ‘off island’, but why? No one, not even permanently sozzled gin bootlegger and Brontë sisters superfan Isola Pribby (Katherine Parkinson) wants to say.
It might be an unwieldy mouthful of words (I’ve just called it the Potato film) and not as good as Their Finest, but it is nostalgic and gentle and elegant and handsomely-shot and thoroughly well-acted and abundantly leafy and paints a portrait of a time and a place. And all the people who should be together on the picnic blanket at the end are. Hurrah.
Downtown Abbey fanatics will also rejoice with the number of alumni who pop up (must need to make a crust these days).
In stark, stark contrast, You Were Never Really Here, which I have been meaning to see for a while.
Awards have come for director Lynne Ramsay and for Joaquin Phoenix, who plays pain with aplomb here.
His bearded and bedraggled Joe rescues children from sex rings. He is hired to do so – not by the authorities, but private clients, typically the parents of teenagers who have disappeared. He has a reputation for brutality, which proves a popular USP when picking the right person for the task.
And his latest job is a missing senator’s daughter.
This narrative is interrupted by a series of disorienting flashes and short scenes that offer a glimpse into the shattered psyche of our hero – a hit man with a conscience.
The bloodied hammer; a burning photo; polythene over a smoke detector; a man’s head inside a plastic bag omitting a silent scream. He has seen war. He has seen crime scenes. He had an abusive father. He carries horrific and debilitating emotional ballast as a result and we are taken inside of that trauma and chaos and darkness.
We also see tender moments as he polishes cutlery and sings with his ailing mother and jarring juxtapositions as he stops when asked to take snaps for giggling tourists, putting down his bag of death to assist.
The exposition is light as is the exposure to the gore, leaving the audience to find their own way. This is unsettling at first, but on reflection, you see what a masterclass of cinematography it is. Threat and anguish stalk almost without you realising it.
Violence and personal hell are conjured in all manner of commanding ways. The choice and then use of music and sound, of close up framed eyes, hands twiddling a jelly bean. Views through CCTV cameras and broken mirrors, combining to help create a bleak piece of psychological artistry.
Phoenix is absolutely immense.
It is not exactly a 90-minute experience to relish, but it is an experience.