Directed by Hettie Macdonald and written by Rachel Joyce based upon her best-selling 2012 novel. The casting of Jim Broadbent in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a perfect match, as the actor already voiced the novel’s audiobook release several years ago.
Living the simple life, retiree Harold Fry and his wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton) reside in a market town in the south of England. On a quiet day like any other, Harold receives an unexpectedly terrible letter from an old acquaintance, Queenie (Linda Bassett). She is in hospice losing a battle with cancer and the letter is a simple one of defeat, saying farewell.
This letter shakes Harold to his core and he writes a boilerplate reply not knowing what to say. Every epic journey begins with a first step and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry begins with a trip to the mailbox. Harold walks a little, then a little more and before he knows it, he is inspired by an insanely hopeful plan. If he, an old man who never accomplished much can make the 700+ kilometre hike to North England to see Queenie, then maybe his friend can hold on until he makes it!
Meeting many friendly people along the way, Harold unwittingly becomes something of a folk hero. He reflects on his life and learns to travel light, purging himself of the things which never really mattered. But where does that leave those he left behind like his wife and son, Maureen, and David (Earl Cave)?
At the centre of Harold Fry’s story is a message of hope and faith. The characters make note that this is not in a strictly religious sense with Harold admitting to never getting the hang of it. Rather, Fry’s determinism to accomplish the impossible gives him a belief that if he can push on through the pain, then Queenie mustn’t give up either.
This film’s success fully rests on the shoulders of its two veteran lead performers. Broadbent, as loveable as ever, has an instantly likeable quality where we want to see him succeed, even when at first his journey seems like a selfish one. With Wilton’s Maureen being left alone back home without much of a second thought, we see her struggle with feelings about her own life.
I’ve been a fan of Wilton since Shaun of the Dead and in many ways, she has the more emotional role here. We know from the start there is something eating away at her in relation to Queenie’s letter. Throughout Fry’s journey and fame, she wonders “What about me?”, but feels guilty for asking such a question.
Working largely in the past with documentaries, cinematographer Kate McCullough ensures this road movie of sorts is a gorgeous one. The stunning natural beauty of England’s countryside and nature is on full display. I also found the flashbacks interestingly shot with harsh lighting This displayed as Harold remembers situations that he found difficult to tackle.
I like the idea that Harold’s trek is only made possible by the unexpected kindness of strangers. Some encounters are quite incredulous however, with people seemingly in a hurry to spill their guts to this complete stranger, the following which builds up around Harold Fry’s quest feels a little under baked as well, with the film and Harold shedding the idea faster than they probably should.
This film may remind many of Forrest Gump. Although familiar in some ways, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is still, in its own way, a thoroughly enjoyable film. With amazing performances by Broadbent and Wilton, it is an incredibly sentimental and touching film about the power of hope.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is in cinemas from June 14.