The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

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I’ve seen things I never thought could happen happen. In 1946 London-based writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James) begins exchanging letters with residents on the island of Guernsey, which was German-occupied during WWII after one of them, pig farmer Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) comes into possession of her copy of Essays of Elia. Her new book of humour enables her to buy a decent home but it doesn’t fit her down to earth style and she stays in a bedsit in a boarding house.  Her publisher Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode) is urging her to go on a proper publicity tour but she is restless. Romanced by US Army officer Markham Reynolds (Glen Powell) who fills her home with daily bouquets and dances her around the finest venues in London, the letters from the quaintly named book club pique her curiosity. Feeling compelled to visit the island, she starts to get a picture of what it was like during the occupation but her desire to write an article for The Times elicits opposition, particularly from Amelia (Penelope Wilton) who regarded the mysteriously absent club member Elizabeth (Jessica Browne Findlay) as her daughter yet whose little child is being reared by Dawsey. When things get difficult at the guest house run by Charlotte Stimple (Bronagh Gallagher) Juliet takes refuge with gin-maker Isola (Katharine Parkinson) and Eben the postmaster (Tom Courtenay) is always at hand with support and a telephone line …. The little-acknowledged German occupation of the Channel Islands and its very complex legacy is often the forgotten part of what went on during World War 2 in the British Isles. Mary Ann Shaffer’s novel, inspired by a visit there, was completed posthumously by her niece, Annie Barrows, and the screenplay by Kevin Hood, Don Roos and Tom Bezucha (the latter two substantial directors in their own right) transcends the material, bringing to life an extraordinary episode in fictional form. The story of Elizabeth and her transgression is wrought exponentially not necessarily because anyone wants Juliet to know the story but precisely because their own prejudices and beliefs are called into question, as well as a sense of guilt over the outcome, which is of course the big reveal. Perhaps James and Huisman are not ideally meant in movie star heaven – Powell is a much more obvious fit, a good guy, a sparky romantic lead and a well-meaning operator who helps solve the puzzle of Elizabeth, but in matters of the heart, we never know how other people work and the obvious is not always right.  More than that, this explores the real dilemma that a writer has:  confronting her failure as a serious biographer (The Life of Ann Brontë sold 28 copies – “worldwide,” as her publisher helpfully contributes to a roomful of rapt readers of her Izzy Bickerstaff book). So the frothy crowd-pleasing delights on English foibles she is now expected to produce frustrate her when she is confronted by real emotion after wartime’s effects are truly felt by British victims of the Nazi regime who don’t want fairy stories told about them.  It is the resolution of both story problems that produces the conclusion and that is the real achievement of this melding of fact and the manufacture of fiction. Above all, this is a film about the joy of reading. Beautifully shot on location with great production design and attention to historical detail, this is quite spellbinding. Directed by Mike Newell.

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Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)

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Everything on this station is either too old or doesn’t work. And you’re both! Mr Porter (Will Hay) is sent to be the stationmaster of an underused and putatively haunted ramshackle Northern Irish railway station in rural Buggleskelly. His unprofessional colleagues are the elderly deputy master Harbottle (Moore Marriott) and the insolent young Albert (Graham Moffatt) who operate a black market in train tickets for food and tell Porter his predecessors were offed by One-Eyed Joe. He plans to upgrade facilities by organising a trip to Connemara – unaware that some of his customers are gunrunners intending to transport weapons into the Irish Free State …  Filled with confusion, misunderstandings, a run-in with terrorists and a disappearing train, this is a terrifically realised comedy with Hay and his co-stars performing perfectly in roles that would later inspire Dad’s Army. Written by J.O.C. Orton, Marriott Edgar and Val Guest and based on a story by Frank Launder, this was directed by Marcel Varnel and remains Hay’s most acclaimed work.  It’s a minor British genre classic filled with gags galore – there’s even a donnybrook in a pub!

Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

Stars in My Crown (1950)

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– Good story. – Don’t rush me. A prime example of Americana, based on Joe David Brown’s novel, Joel McCrea is the preacher determined to bring God to the settlement of Walesburg after the Civil War. He has to take the villagers seriously – at gunpoint, to bring them round. In this episodic narrative told by his adopted nephew Dean Stockwell as an adult (voiced by Marshall Thompson) there is a low key romance with church organist Ellen Drew; the arrival of typhoid fever which threatens not just lives but the respect between him and  young doctor James Mitchell;  McCrea’s struggle when he refuses to accept the school well is the cause of the outbreak; and the repeated threats to black farmer Famous (Juano Hernandez) prove this is far from twee.  Indeed when the KKK bring a burning cross to the patch that he has made home you realise this is a lot more than a story of tough love. McCrea is a solid leading man and he is excellent here as a man whose faith is truly tested.There’s really good work from Alan Hale as the Swedish father of five who never goes to church but is always ready to lend a helping hand and James Arness and Amanda Blake feature years before Gunsmoke. This is far from your average western, a keen mix of humour, commentary and drama. Brown adapted his novel but it was the work of the screenwriter Margaret Fitts that’s interesting. She did several screen adaptations and is one of those women who did such good writing for the western genre, including adapting her own novel, The King and Four Queens, which became the Clark Gable movie. This was directed by Jacques Tourneur, a man many consider in the realm of auteur.

The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

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This isn’t really a 3D animation about the secret life of our companion animals:  it’s a highly derivative rewrite of several other movies starting with The Incredible Journey and winding up in a NYC back alley slinging it out with Lady and the Tramp and Toy Story and … but hey! as a committed aiurophile I’m with it most of the way.  Much to his irritation, comfortable little terrier Max gets a Big Brother dog called Duke, they escape their apartment and get caught up with feral cats, flushed pets and then eat themselves almost to the dog pound in a sausage factory. Before joining forces to survive animal control. The war between humans and animals is one of attrition, after all. The backdrops are superb, the voicework is fine for the most part (Kevin Hart doing Snowball the bunny is … odd) although even at 91 minutes it feels, like all animation features, a tad long. If only all humans and their animal friends had happy endings.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2008)

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Or, how British journo Toby Young baited Graydon Carter into employing him at Vanity Fair by parodying him on the cover of Modern Review, back in the day. Sort of. This adaptation of Young’s book  never really hits the scorching masochistic depths of our hero’s desperate quest to get beyond his nose pressing the window of celebland. This is the very inverse of Dale Carnegie, dontcha know. Called ‘Sidney’ here, Young is introduced by nemesis Danny Huston as ‘our very own idiot savant. Without the savant.’ Simon Pegg is the right side of gormless but never truly vicious as our hero so we’re not in John Niven territory here despite the plethora of opportunities he avails of to humiliate himself as publicly as possible. Peter Straughan’s screenplay varies the tale somewhat from the memoir and Robert Weide (an expert in embarrassment from Curb Your Enthusiasm – bliss itself!) handles the material well and it’s fitfully amusing rather than laugh out loud bellyaches all round since the satirical edges have been dulled. The trailer for a Mother Teresa biopic starring Megan Fox is good though. We’re in the male version of The Devil Wears Prada rather than the magazine version of Kill Your Friends. It will come as no surprise to learn that the real Toby Young was banned from the set, so predictably annoying was he to all concerned. (He played himself in a stage adaptation.) Spot all the homages to The Big Lebowski! And dig the pig. And, hey, The Modern Review really was fantastic.