Channel Hopping

By Jason Solomons

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Beast

Not since John Nettles cruised around St Helier in a vintage Triumph Roadster in TV detective series Bergerac has there been so much filming in the Channel Islands, as Jersey and Guernsey take starring roles in two new British films. Michael Pearce’s atmospheric debut, Beast, is set in Jersey, making use of its coast, cliffs, fields and cosy housing enclaves. But I’ll begin with Mike Newell’s film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which takes a period, literary route, an adaptation from a book in which Lily James’s well-tailored London author Juliet Ashton visits the island just after the war to uncover secrets of the Nazi occupation. I found out later that Guernsey isn’t actually played by Guernsey at all, because it doesn’t look like it did in the 1940s. So they made it in Cornwall, Devon, Bristol and Buckinghamshire, but kept that mouthful of a title.

I haven’t read the book and this plodding, pretty adaptation hasn’t sent me rushing to do so. Lily James is joined by a few ex-Downton Abbey chums – Jessica Brown Findlay, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton
– as her Juliet leaves an American GI fiancé back in London in 1946 and falls for a handsome, book- loving, island pig farmer (Michiel Huisman, which is obeying British cinema’s first rule of heritage cinema casting: if you can’t get anyone from Downton, go for Game of Thrones).

In flashbacks, Juliet learns how life was under occupation and uncovers a passionate love story she wants to make the subject of her next book. Director Mike Newell made Four Weddings and a Funeral and Enchanted April, but he gets bogged down in this one, never managing the balance between romance and plucky eccentricity. All the actors, even the great Tom Courtenay, are trying just that little bit too hard and, while the production designers have a ball with the wartime props and Lily James’s outfits, this isn’t Casablanca – and ‘we’ll always have St Peter Port’ has no ring to it.

Michael Pearce’s feature debut, Beast, however, takes full advantage of Jersey’s landscape and folklore to create an eerie, atmospheric and sexy thriller. Pearce is a Jersey native and brings a strong sense
of place to the film. It stars the excellent Jessie Buckley as Moll and singer/actor Johnny Flynn as Pascal Renouf, a charismatic handyman and poacher linked by local police to the unsolved disappearances of
a number of women.

Moll, in her mid-20s, still lives with her well-to-do family and her mum (a formidable Geraldine James) runs the church choir, but her feelings for rough-hewn Pascal lead her into a dangerous love affair that outrages her mother and infuriates the local police detective who’s fancied Moll for years. Pearce uses what feels like a love-hate relationship with Jersey
to fan the film’s many tensions, a drama heightened by the landscape: dramatic cliffs, wide beaches, pine trees, potato fields and shimmering patches of green. Helping display the island is Moll’s almost comical job as a historical guide, with a uniform, a little hat and a busload of tourists.

Beast is a wildly intriguing tale, with real moments of shock and excitement. Buckley, who’s excelling in The Woman in White on the telly at the moment, is terrific as this unreadable young woman caught in a storm of her own awakening emotions, and Flynn proves a mercurial presence, while the Jersey backdrop makes exotic viewing for a British film, with a flavour of Continental beauty and a smattering of foreboding.

The title, Beast, might refer to the real-life serial killer the Beast of Jersey, who terrified the island in the 1960s, or it could be about Moll’s own turmoil, or the dodgy, roll-up smoking Pascal. I’m not sure we ever find out, but you’ll be talking about it long after you leave the cinema. And, strangely, you might even fancy the place for a holiday.