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21 April 2023

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a quintessentially British road trip

The screen adaptation of the bestselling book inevitably (and ideally) stars Jim Broadbent and Penelope Wilton – but plods along at an ambler’s pace.

By David Sexton

Medieval forms persist. Pilgrimage, Jonathan Sumption’s first book, published in 1975 when he was still an academic before he turned lawyer and controversialist, is a wonderfully detailed study of the entire phenomenon, as practised from late antiquity to the Reformation, relishing all its peculiarities. Pilgrimage, he concludes, maintains a fitful existence to this day. The needs it serves are perpetual perhaps.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, published in 2012, was the debut novel of radio dramatist Rachel Joyce, developed from a short radio play to become one of the best-sellers of the year. She has since expanded the story into an unlikely trilogy, selling six million books. It’s a simple enough tale, albeit narrated in pedantic detail. Harold Fry, 65, living in retirement in Kingsbridge in Devon with his wife, Maureen, receives a letter from a friend he hasn’t seen for a long time: Queenie Hennessy. Writing from a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, where she is dying of cancer, she bids him farewell.

[See also: Kristoffer Borgli’s Sick of Myself: the worst people in the world?]

Harold sets off to post his reply but en route chats to a girl in a garage shop, who tells him, “You have to believe a person can get better,” and that, “if you have faith, you can do anything”. Harold feebly replies that “religion is not something I ever quite got the hang of”, but is persuaded, and spontaneously sets off to walk the 627 miles to Berwick, believing that while he keeps walking, she will keep living.

For, we gradually come to understand, he has much to expiate. He not only let down Queenie badly, after she rescued him from disgrace at work, but he also failed to save his gifted but tormented son, David, who got into Cambridge only to self-destruct. Harold and Maureen’s marriage has been a sham ever since. So now he is paying penance, hoping for salvation, perhaps a miracle. Or, as he puts it in his entirely English, hopelessly flat way: “I’ve spent my life not doing anything. And now at last I am.”

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For all his disavowal of religion, Harold’s journey truly is a pilgrimage, following the customs Sumption describes, from going all the way on foot, and embracing poverty, to attracting carnival crowds of dubious companions. The clarity of this structure supports this otherwise sentimental, even twee, work.

The great Jim Broadbent read the audiobook of the novel and he is inevitably (but also ideally) cast as Harold in this faithful adaptation, Rachel Joyce having written her own screenplay. Broadbent is the great virtuoso of the insufficiency of decency, the anguish of inadequacy. His face here is endlessly interesting, changing as the journey progresses, more weathered and whiskery, bleaker but also more comprehending.

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Penelope Wilton is equally good as the repressed and repressive Maureen who tells Harold, when he rings her, that she’s hardly noticed he’s gone. To a neighbour, she observes of her husband, “It would be easier if he were dead, at least I’d know where I stand.” She’s so expert in such negation that her ultimate declaration of love for this dear man doesn’t entirely convince. Nor do the lights in the sky and sparkles in the dying Queenie’s room as signifiers of transcendence.

The film is director Hettie Macdonald’s first work since Normal People and rather less exciting than that, often plodding along itself. She has an unsparing eye for domestic frigidity – Maureen’s endless vacuuming, lace curtains and china dogs – but she and cinematographer Kate McCullough make the landscapes Harold traverses flow, the scenes having been shot consecutively, following Harold’s route. So here’s a quintessentially British road movie – except that road movies themselves are best understood as late, deflected acts of pilgrimage.

The country that took 100-year-old Captain Tom Moore’s own incredible journey around his garden to its heart may well rejoice in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. But the movie it should be compared to is David Lynch’s masterful The Straight Story (1999), about Alvin Straight who, unable to drive a car, rode a lawnmower across 300 miles of Iowa and Wisconsin to visit his ailing brother.

Alvin Straight was played by Richard Farnsworth, a Western and stunt actor, then 79 and terminally ill with metastasised prostate cancer in his bones, the paralysis of his legs visible in the film being real (Farnsworth took his own life a year later). Lynch loves the Midwest landscapes and the good people Alvin meets, and the whole film feels at once both natural and utterly rich and strange – truly miraculous, that pilgrimage. A better trip.

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” is in cinemas now

[See also: God’s Creatures is a powerful portrait of a toxic mother-son relationship]

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age