Film & Television

New Historical Dramas, Old Familiar Faces

If you’re a fan of British dramas, as I certainly am, I think you’ll probably agree that half the fun is recognizing cast members from their previous performances. It’s marvelous to see the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith) on the faculty at Hogwarts. Dame Helen Mirren is as compelling in her multiple turns as England’s Queen Elizabeth II as she is playing a conflicted U.S. military commander in Eye in the Sky or a stuffy restaurateur in The Hundred-Foot Journey. And, while Colin Firth may have eventually married Bridget Jones, he’ll always be Mr. Darcy to me.

Now, two delightful new imports from England are available to view at home on-demand. The film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which enjoyed successful theatrical releases in the U.K., France, and other countries, is on Netflix. The three-part miniseries A Very English Scandal, which was broadcast in England last spring, is on Amazon.

Guernsey (the mouthful of a title, but not the marvelous story, deserves to be abbreviated), takes place in 1946, just after the war. London is rebuilding, while the residents of Guernsey, a British Channel Island that is actually closer to France than to England, are still reeling from their German occupation. The central character is a young writer, Juliet, who visits Guernsey after a member of the movie’s eponymous book club reaches out to her by letter. On the island, she gradually wins the trust of the locals and uncovers a tragic mystery. Oh, and she falls in love, of course, which isn’t difficult to do as she befriends an unbelievably sexy single-father pig farmer (and author of the original missive), but is terribly inconvenient given that she’s left a determined wealthy American fiancé back in London.

The film, directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral and Enchanted April), boasts not one or two or even three, but four former Downton Abbey actors. The lovely and prolific Lily James plays Juliet. Most recently seen as the younger version of Meryl Streep’s Donna in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, here she neither sings nor dances, but still lights up the screen with a portrayal that is at once romantic and intelligent. Juliet is decidedly modern. Quick to admit that she enjoys the quiet of her literary life, “sitting indoors and always near a teapot,” she relentlessly pursues answers and is willing to walk away from the conventional and expected to follow her heart.

The equally lovely Jessica Brown Findlay plays Elizabeth, the founder of the reading group, whose reported disappearance turns Juliet into a detective. Shown in flashbacks, Elizabeth is much like Brown Findlay’s Downton character Lady Sybil, an open-hearted progressive — and in this case, a member of the resistance. Defying the Nazis, she had attempted to rescue a young boy, was caught and sent to mainland Europe. Although the rest of the society and their new friend hope for good news, her future isn’t promising.

Interestingly, James and Brown Findlay never shared scenes in Julian Fellowes’s Masterpiece series. By the time young cousin Rose appeared, Sybil had already died in childbirth. In Guernsey, they don’t cross paths either, at least not in person. Elizabeth’s story, however, inspires Juliet and makes her bravely pursue a new life and in a significant way pick up where Elizabeth left off.

Penelope Wilton, the Abbey’s Mrs. Crawley and a familiar face for Anglophiles, is Amelia, the spiritual den mother of the group, who lost her husband at the Somme in the first World War and her daughter after miscarriage complications during the Guernsey occupation. With the assumed loss of Elizabeth too, she is irreparably broken. As always, Wilton’s performance runs deep, and the dignity of her grief grounds every scene in which she appears.

The Downton reunion is completed by Matthew Goode, whom you may remember as the second Mr. Lady Mary. As Juliet’s editor and “oldest friend” Sidney, he encourages her to write from the heart, even as he worries that her impending marriage will mean the end of her career. Goode is, as usual, elegant and dashing. But, lest we imagine a romance between him and his protégée, we’re told that Sidney “prefers to date Georges and Toms.”

The cast also includes Michiel Huisman (Treme and Game of Thrones) as the dashing gentleman pig farmer Dawsey; Glen Powell (Hidden Figures) as the American fiancé; senior statesman Tom Courtenay (45 Years) running Guernsey’s post office; and less well-known but thoroughly engaging Katherine Parkinson as creative spinster — and bootlegger — Isola.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is lovely to watch (the rugged coasts of Devon and Cornwall breathtakingly stand in for the island itself). Based on the bestselling novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, the story, though predictable, is as homespun and comfortable as a piece of potato peel pie. But far more tasty.

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