It is a bright, sunny day in South Devon. Maureen (Penelope Wilton) and Harold Fry (Jim Broadbent) are having breakfast at home. Harold is reading a letter from an old friend Queenie (Linda Bassett) who has been admitted to a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. So far, so quintessentially British and ‘normal’.
Harold attempts to write her a letter in reply but struggles to find the words, before finally settling on one line of apology. He sets out to post the letter, but we sense that he feels that this isn’t enough: flashbacks suggest that theirs is a close relationship; and after an enlightening conversation with a young cashier in a garage, so begins his unlikely journey from Kingsbridge to Berwick on foot to ‘save’ Queenie.
This is where it becomes faintly ridiculous: elderly gentleman leaves home to buy a pint of milk … and keeps walking. He is wearing ordinary clothes and ordinary shoes and has no mobile phone on him, never mind a sleeping bag! He stays overnight in pubs and B&Bs to begin with, moving to barns and then the great outdoors as the film progresses. When a child tells him that he “stinks” he buys himself some washing powder and a razor, but these are then sent back to his wife as unnecessary extras, along with his watch and his wallet.
While the metaphor for letting go of things that are weighing you down is clear, the idea that someone could or would actually undertake such a pilgrimage with no preparation is so unlikely that it impacts our ability to fully immerse ourselves in the film. It is telling that the most truthful moments come at the end of the film when we are allowed to see the full back story which led to this event as well as the tragedy that surrounded it.
Based on Rachel Joyce’s 2012 debut novel of the same name, Joyce is also scriptwriter on the film and imbues it with a British sensibility that is exquisitely played by Broadbent and Wilton, alongside Earl Cave as their son David and Joseph Mydell as their caring neighbour Rex. At its heart, this is a film about dysfunctional relationships, be they friends or family, and there are some genuinely moving moments and beautiful relationships formed between Harold and the people that he meets along his journey (not to mention a fabulous canine companion!)
The film is beautifully shot by Kate McCullough – unusually they filmed it sequentially so Broadbent was able to roughen up as they went on – and there is strong direction from Hettie Macdonald, but the strength of the story is questionable. It is a pleasant way to while away a couple of hours but, for this reviewer, Fry was more of a simmer than a sizzle.
Rather too unlikely – ★★★ 3 stars