The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry review: Jim Broadbent takes a walk

The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry poster
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The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry follows the titular character as he takes a long walk across the country – here’s our review.

There’s something of a science fiction film about The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry. Set in a parallel universe where there’s a working phone box in every town, where letters arrive quickly, and where there’s no charge for a carrier bag at the local shop, at the very least it presents for reasonable chunks a slightly heightened view of England.

It’s the tale of the titular Harold, played by the ever-marvelous Jim Broadbent, who gets a letter that an old colleague of his has a terminal illness. Thing is, he’s down on the south coast, and she’s up in Berwick-Upon-Tweed. I’ll save you the maths: there’s around 500 miles between them, and time is not on her side.

Life is hardly shining on the side of Penelope Wilton’s Maureen, nor on Harold either. They’re an old married couple who look like they live in Old Married Couple Land. Their house is spare. They sit together and drink tea, barely talking. Everything is clean. Nothing looks lived in. And then the letter arrives.

As Maureen hangs out the washing, Harold pens a reply, heads to the postbox, but then encounters a shop assistant by the name of, well, she’s listed as ‘Garage Girl’ in the credits, but she’s played by Nina Singh. In one of the film’s occasional moments where it feels people are talking in life advice by default, their encounter sets Harold walking. And, bluntly, he’s not got the shoes for it.

Rachel Joyce’s novel is the source for the film, and she’s adapted it for the screen herself. I liked how she gets through a good chunk of business fairly quickly, so that Harold can hit the road.

She’s also very careful to make sure Maureen is a key part of the story. Early on, she’s sat at home and it could have been really easy to either have her as a nagging spouse, or an overly-enthusiastic cheerleader. Maureen is neither, and while the beats of her story don’t hugely surprise, her character is not a simple one either. Plus, Penelope Wilton: there’s a moment where the words are stripped away and her haunted look gives off more than pages of dialogue. She really is an exceptional actor, and a superb big screen presence.

So is Broadbent, of course, and the joy of the film is the pair of them. Director Hettie Macdonald’s prep for The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry must have been on the taxing side too. The film is outside, across the UK, where human beings and actual locations are its special effects. Threaded in too is a spiritual undercurrent here, that’s present, without whacking you on the head.

Somewhat inevitably, you know where The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry is heading, not least because it tells you multiple times throughout its running time. Not unlike the recent A Man Called Otto, it’s a story of troubled people, punctuated by supporting characters who pop in along the journey. Nothing radical, and what surprises the film tries to hold back are pretty evident, and nothing that would massively interest M Night Shyamalan.

But they’re also not the point. Because in its relatively conventional clothing, and via its plastered feet (there’s some full-on manky feet stuff going on here, just as the original purveyors of the big screen surely envisaged), there’s a quietly absorbing, and unfussy film here. It states the obvious to suggest that the circuit of a film is completed by what the audience brings to it. To some, I can’t help but feel this is a special one. For the rest of us? It’s a fine way to spend 105 minutes.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry is released in cinemas on 28th April.

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