'Guernsey' is A Litmus Test for What You Want From a Movie
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Let's be honest, you're going to watch this movie. Never doubt the power of the Netflix algorithm, which concocted this period piece romantic comedy starring man candies Glen Powell and Michiel Huisman competing for the affections of my queen, and the patron saint of this newsletter, Lily James. In retrospect it's the biggest slam dunk of a movie formula ever. If you haven't seen it since it was released last Friday, you're almost definitely clicking out of your email browser now and cueing up Netflix. I guess I'll see you in two hours. With that formula, it almost doesn't matter if the movie is good. But is it? Once you see this movie, you're going to have one of two reactions. Either you'll think it's really bad, or you'll love it. There's no in between. And whichever camp you end up in says a lot about what you look for in a movie. On one hand, the stitches used to put this movie together are showing at the seams. There's really no attempt to hide them. The beautiful people fall in love with each other, the ugly characters are evil, the old characters are wise, the young characters are innocent. The good guys are all good, the bad guys are all bad. The dialogue is all cliché. Here comes the part where they break up! Here comes the discovery that changes everything! The drama is inconsequential and fleeting, like a brief summer rain, with zero doubt that within the hour the beautiful sun will be out and shining once again. And the conclusion...a slow motion running towards each other in a crowd? I half expected one of our lovers to say, "Here's looking at you, kid." (for the record, I've never understood why this line became as iconic as it is). Objectively, the filmmaking is juvenile. Here's the thing. If there ever were better avatars for this innocent, enthusiastic puppy dog routine, I've haven't seen it. James, Powell, Huisman and the others don't have a phony bone in their bodies. It doesn't take too much to succumb to their sentimental charms. In which case, this movie is the best. All of the sets and scenery and costumes and camera angles are picturesque, every scripted puzzle piece falls perfectly into place. It's so sappy it makes you want to cry tears of joy. Really it's basically a grown-up version of the animated Disney movies we grew up watching. The morale of this story is quite literally that love and literature are more powerful than war. I mean come on! It's the sort of fictional world you just wish you could jump through the screen and live in forever, a place where all of the characters are kind-hearted and loving, and everything works out exactly as it should. And, of course, in this fictional world I'd be married to Lily James. So whatever algorithm gets me closer to that is one I support.
The irony is that Guernsey was set in the late 1940s, right around the time this movie was actually being created. Swap out Powell and Huisman for Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, and James for one of film's all time queens in Audrey Hepburn, and it's easy to see the same appeal in this romantic comedy from the golden age of Hollywood. What it lacks in action, it more than makes up for in intrigue. What happens when two wealthy brothers fall for the same girl, the daughter of their chauffeur, and neither one is allowed to be with her? It's funny and sweet like Guernsey, but the plot is far less predictable and the dialogue is sharper. And come on, who wouldn't fight over Audrey Hepburn?
Picking a movie that fits the mold of Guernsey, except ya know...better, is a very specific request. Because while I find romantic melancholies to be far more emotionally engaging and infinitely more interesting, they don't fit the cheesy, sentimental mold. Chocolat definitely does. In this case, the universal power of books is substituted for chocolate. But the same rules apply: beautiful setting, beautiful people, beautiful story. A town ruled by the iron fist of the church during Lent is turned upside down when people realize they....gasp...actually like eating chocolate! The sugar rushing to their brains apparently makes them realize they might actually try being nice to one another. The sentimentalism is just slightly better executed here, and it's slightly easier to fall into its trap. Plus, young Johnny Depp! Young(er) Judi Dench! Young(ish) Juliette Binoch! After all, we all know we like chocolate more than books, right?