Film Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2023) – Directed by Hettie Macdonald

Based on the bestselling book by Rachel Joyce – who has also written the screenplay – this film stars the inimitable Jim Broadbent and Penelope Wilton as Harold and Maureen Fry, a retired couple living quietly in Kingsbridge, Devon.

The ‘unlikely pilgrimage’ starts when Harold receives a letter from a former work colleague.   He pens a letter in response which he then sets out to take to the post box.  But after he leaves the house, his plans change; instead of posting the letter, he will deliver it himself –  by walking from his home in Devon to Berwick-on-Tweed, a distance of some 500 miles.

I read Rachel Joyce’s book years ago and enjoyed it, but found it too sentimental in parts and couldn’t get my head round the central premise which seemed beyond silly.  Wouldn’t you just get the train? Yet somehow in performance the more unlikely elements of the story … seem to work better than they did on paper, maybe because Broadbent is so compelling in the title role that even when he looks like an elderly drowned rat with cinematic mud all over his face,  he still holds entire scenes with just a wounded stare from those piercing eyes.   He looks like a man on a mission, a man who has no idea what he is doing but is anyway determined to do it.

There are still moments of sentiment and scenes which stretch credulity, such as Harold’s decision to offload the few things he carries with him for his journey (including his debit and credit cards) and just manage on the offerings of the populace, or by eating the odd blackberry that he finds on a bramble somewhere.

Who would true valour see, let him come hither!

I have seen mixed reviews of this film, ranging from two to five stars, so it has definitely divided critical opinion.  The lowest score was from the Guardian reviewer who said the film was “undermined by issues of tone and implausibility conected to the word ‘unlikely’ in the title”.

Well, yes.  But also, no!

As I watched, the likelihood of whether Harold’s brogues would really have withstood that long a walk became of minor import –  of course they wouldn’t!  But there is so much more to a film than the reality of the soles of our shoes.  There is the portrayal of endurance, there is suffering, there is grief and guilt and there is of course love.  It’s a busy director who has to fit all this into an 80 minute time slot.  I think Hettie Macdonald succeeds admirably.

So lets hear it for belief in the art of the possible.  The kindly rag bag of lost souls Fry meets along the way; all the heartwarming bits about those who try to help even when they just make things worse; the camera work that makes the film look like a series of paintings by Edward Hopper, the exceptional acting.

As the story progresses we find out more about the unassuming pensioner at its centre and the soul tearing events that mark him out as a man searching for the redemptive possibilities of faith in the human race.   This story is as soaked in grief as the English countryside it inhabits is soaked in rain.  I wept copiously at one scene just before the end.

Personally I loved the whole thing, but those intending to watch should take with them a spot of suspension of disbelief, and a large box of tissues.




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