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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry ★★★



Director: Hettie Macdonald 

Cast: Jim Broadbent, Penelope Wilton 

Release: April 28, 2023 

In the build-up to the release of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a viral tweet surfaced arguing that the typical British film surrounding two older, gentile protagonists would often have an incredulous title that waffles on in the way we’d expect its characters too. Though the name — lifted from the synonymous novel by Rachel Joyce — doesn’t exactly trip off of the tongue, the film goes some way to subverting those expectations. When it doesn’t, there is a pleasant rose-tinted vision of a Great Britain many feel disconnected with. Though the journey is never going to cause waves in the industry or with the public, its ripples have certainly earned a spot worthy of recognition.

After receiving a letter from long-forgotten friend Queenie (Linda Bassett), retiree, Harold (Jim Broadbent) is suddenly inspired to walk to visit her in the hospice. Set in Devon, the proposed journey aims to take Harold to Berwick-upon-Tweed — something which wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton) instantly frowns upon. Meeting a plethora of people along the way, Harold has to confront his past while propelling forward to Queenie’s future. 

As expected, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry airs on the side of twee. It’s an ideal transition from sofa to cinema for those who would typically lean toward a Sunday night BBC drama or any book found in Waterstone’s “Buy one get one half price” deal. Set up as a narrative that could easily appear at Chichester Festival Theatre, the length and breadth of the gorgeous English countryside is something that undoubtedly causes its audience to be fully ensconced in the story. It’s all a far-fetched fairytale, with the technicalities behind a pensioner successfully walking 450 miles as mind-boggling as the dog who knows how to transfer his moral support from person to person or the borderline insufferable wellwishers that Harold is later stuck with. In essence, it’s mostly too good to be true — but perhaps that’s something we need to believe of the U.K. Amidst the furore of the recent socio-political landscape and depressing news headlines, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry almost positions itself as a cinematic pillar for romanticisation done right. 

Steering the rose-tinted ship is an impeccable performance from Jim Broadbent, who eases himself back into the slippers of the nation’s grandfather. Though it’s difficult to believe that she doesn’t have an awards credit to her name in the trailer, Dame Penelope Wilton dusts off the bitter yet estranged woman she honed in Calendar Girls and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to much-needed effect. Eagle-eyed viewers might pick up on the Calendar Girls ships that pass in the night (with Wilton and Linda Basset both cast), alongside a fleeting appearance from Claire Rushbrook that is arguably underused. With so many stalwarts of the British acting industry joining forces, the root of the film matches its external ideology of togetherness, community, and barriers that have been broken down. Despite the film’s third act being unexpectedly visceral — which possibly doesn’t sit in cohesion with the rest of the plot — The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is exactly what we should think of when we define British spirit. Stripping things back to polite, neighbourly hello’s over the garden fence is one thing, but pairing that with the wider social context of modern Britain is the ideal juxtaposition.

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