Amidst in the “carnival” of post-war celebration in London, the film finds Juliet Ashton (Lily James) lost in the glamour and excitement. Having found success in the war writing comedic stories under the pseudonym Izzie Bickerstaff, she has more money than she knows what to do with and a void in her heart from the loss of her parents. Dizzy from a whirlwind of parties with suitor Mark (Set It Up’s Glen Powell), she remains feeling ungrounded and guilty as so many in Britain are still recovering.
The anchor she needs arrives in the form of a letter from Dawsey Adams (Michel Huisman). He introduces himself as a fellow lover of author Charles Lamb, having found Juliet’s old address in a book that once belonged to her. In mentioning the founding of the eponymous society thanks to a roast pig, a companionable chain of letters begins between them and much to the annoyance of her editor Sidney (Matthew Goode), Juliet travels to the island of Guernsey…
Back in April, I attended the Curzon preview and it was such an enriching experience. As someone who hadn’t read the book beforehand, the journey felt like a combination of romantic period drama and retrospective WWII mystery as Juliet uncovered the story of society founder Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay). Like most viewers I’d imagine, I didn’t know about the occupation of the Channel Islands, having assumed the British living under Nazi rule was seen only in dystopian retellings, so this felt like an important, untold WWII perspective. All the same, optimism reigned supreme, from the light-hearted yet passionate arguments over classic novels to the child-like delight of discovering new books that every bibliophile understands. This story isn’t just about war, but the found family built around escapism from their harsh reality.
“Once two members had read the same book, they could argue, which was our great delight. We read books, talked books, argued over books and became dearer and dearer to one another.”
In the ensuing Q&A the crew confidently justified decisions made in adapting the novel. They couldn’t film on the island itself due to budget restrictions and an inability to turn back time the way they could in Devon and Cornwall, though they made several trips for accuracy and inspiration. In wanting to avoid under-developed background characters, the writers elected to focus on the main circle. Though producer Paula Mazur told us later how she fought for Booker (a Jewish servant who impersonated his master who had fleed the island) she realised it wasn’t possible, but it was lovely to see how she loved those details and felt she’d still succeeded in “capturing the essence of the novel.”
Lily joked about how she contractually required at least three other Downton Abbey actors alongside her but despite this seemingly constructed reunion, the casting was well-deserved. With Penelope Wilton as a grieving mother and Jessica Brown Findlay as a feisty activist, though perhaps not far out of their comfort zones, they provided heart-rending emotional performances. Having despised Matthew Goode’s characters in Brideshead Revisited, Ordeal by Innocence and Death Comes to Pemberley, Sidney was a welcome change and with his balance of wisdom and exasperation, easily became a personal favourite. Another gem was Isola: Katherine Parkinson’s comedic talents did justice to her superstitious eccentricity while through the close friendship with Juliet revealing a deeply caring yet lonely character.
In summer, I read the book and discussed it at length with my housemate, concluding that I wouldn’t have cast Lily James as the book Juliet. However, in the way this adaptation expanded to introduce the romantic tension and emphasise her grief, Lily’s performance was spot-on and she showed an eloquent understanding of film Juliet’s mindset. To contrast her indecision, the writers wrote Mark Reynolds as a military captain rather than a publisher. Glen Powell expressed his amusement at playing such arrogant confidence with the aim to reflect on the Americans who saw themselves as heroes, rebuilding Europe after World War Two.
I could keep on writing about how much I adored this film: the cinematography and costumes were sublime, Juliet’s writing scenes relatable (I think of her as I sit typing this with a cup of tea, albeit with a little laptop not a type writer) and the soundtrack composed by Alexandra Harwood appropriately cheerful and beautiful. If you love the novel, or just books in general, or period dramas like Downton, or Lily James (I know you’ve probably seen Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again), or want a beautiful romance from the director of Four Weddings and a Funeral, this is for you. It will be released on Netflix on the 10th August, I promise you won’t be disappointed.
By Fatima Sheriff
Fatima is a second year biomed at the University of Sheffield. For insight into her personality, her favourite films are: Bright Star, Paddington 2, Taare Zameen Par and Pride & Prejudice and in 2017 she listened mostly to the Hidden Figures soundtrack. Mainly she is an avid TV watcher, particularly shows with original concepts, witty writing and diverse casting. Examples include Legion, Gravity Falls, The Hour, Gilmore Girls, Sense8... and for more, her Twitter and TVShowTime are both @lafatimayette.