Saturday, May 20, 2023




The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  

Director:  Hettie Macdonald. Distributed by:  EntertainmentOne . Based on: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry; by Rachel Joyce. Screenplay by Rachel Joyce. Produced by:Kevin Loader;  Juliet Dowling  Marilyn Milgrom

Production companies:  Ingenious Media  Film 4;  Embankment. Palace Cinemas. May 18 2023

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

It seems most unlikely that a man would walk almost five hundred miles along the length of England to visit a friend in a hospice. And yet that is what Harold Fry (Jim Broadbent) does after he receives a note from a former colleague at his local brewery to tell him that she is dying and is writing to say goodbye. But why walk? Why not drive or catch a train?


Jim Broadbent as Harold Fry
It soon becomes clear in Hettie Macdonald’s film of Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry that Fry is driven by more than a need to visit his dying friend, Queenie Hennessey (Linda Bassett). From the very outset Philippa Hart’s set decoration of Fry’s house suggests a sterility that scars the love and tenderness between Fry and his wife Maureen(Penelope Wilton) An air of loss hangs over the couple. Their life appears empty; their relationship somehow hollowed by unfinished business. A chance conversation with a shop attendant about how faith healed her aunt’s cancer became Fry’s road to Damascus epiphany and he kept walking on his personal Camino from Devon in the south to Berwick on Tweed in the north to keep Queenie alive.

 Writer Joyce has also written the screenplay to display the novel’s allegorical nature. Gradually Fry’s pilgrimage of faith reveals a religious parallel with Christ’s life. He inadvertently heals a gay man’s torment over his love for a younger man. Martina (Monika Gossmann), a Slovak doctor, forced to survive as a toilet cleaner in a land where her professional qualifications are not recognized washes Fry’s bruised and infected feet. Along the way he gathers followers inspired by his example. At one point he is confronted by the betrayal of his troubled companion Wilf (Daniel Frogson). Ultimately his pilgrim’s progress affords  the healing power of catharsis.

Throughout the spectre of grief and guilt haunts his journey. Images of his son’s self-destruction torment his memories, with horrifying interpolations of Earl Cave’s torturous performance as Maureen and Harold’s son David. There is a raw simplicity to Macdonald’s film. It could have been easily filmed in black and white for its absence of colour. Only the  tshirts emblazoned with the word Pilgrim give some hint of a pilgrimage turned into a festivity, which eventually must be abandoned. At one point Fry gazes out at the unadorned natural beauty of the landscape as he pursues his journey through a landscape contrasrted as times by the simple villages along the way and the plagued memories of David. At another point his walk takes him past the towering satanic industrial chimneys. Fry’s arduous trek becomes a metaphor for a nation divided.

Penelope Wilton as Maureen Fry
As Fry, driven by faith and a need for absolution, Broadbent is superb. Close-ups reveal a face that exhibits an encyclopaedia of thought and feeling. His pain is palpable. His resolve admirable and his faith unassailable. As his wife, Wilton’s performance is heartrending, a portrayal of the devastated but loyal partner. The pathos is unbearable, her suffering utterly believable. Cave’s portrayal of David is immensely disturbing, a graphic insight into the perils of failed communication and misunderstanding. Macdonald’s casting is brilliant and there is also strong support from the sympathetic and understanding neighbour Rex (Joseph Mydell).

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is an unpretentious film faithfully brought to life by Joyce’s adaptation of her novel and carefully and truthfully directed by Macdonald who has obviously observed the key themes of Joyce’s tribute to faith and the simple Everyman, played so sensitively by Broadbent. The film is  a testament to the human spirit while also issuing a warning to a society that loses the capacity to care.