Adapted from her own novel by Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a curious confection, occasionally poignant and life-affirming, but just as often stepping into quasi-religious territory and offering moments that can most charitably be described as ‘twee’. And it must also be said that the most pertinent word in the title is ‘Unlikely’.
Harold (Jim Broadbent ) and Maureen (Penelope Wilton) are living a life of quiet desperation somewhere in Devon, when a letter arrives from Harold’s old friend, Queenie, who is now in a hospice in Berwick-on-Tweed, approaching the end of her life. It’s clear from Maureen’s reaction that there’s something about her husband’s relationship with this woman that disturbs her, but she stays quiet as he pens a hasty reply to Queenie and then sets off to post his letter. But a chance conversation with a young assistant in the garage, where Harold stops to buy milk, prompts him to make a decision. He will deliver his reply by hand – and he will walk all the way there, a distance of nearly five hundred miles, with no special equipment and no preparation.
At various points along the way, Harold encounters a series of strangers, who in various ways help him to accomplish his self-imposed pilgrimage, but none of these characters is given enough to do to make this anything other than a two-hander – and every step of the way, Harold is haunted by memories of the awful tragedy that changed his life forever…
Watching this is a strangely unsettling experience. One moment I’m thinking that it’s doing something really clever, the next I’m close to tears as a genuinely affecting moment tugs at my heartstrings – but then, all too often, I’m wincing as a really banal revelation comes leaping out of left field to slap me right in the kisser. Both Broadbent and Wilton are seasoned performers, and do the best they can with the material, but I can’t help feeling sorry for Wilton, who – as Maureen – is reduced to spending the first half of this film sulking at home while her husband strides off on what feels like a capricious whim.
The uneven tone coupled with the glacial pace conspire to make the film feel longer than its moderate running time. I haven’t read the source novel, so I don’t know how faithful an adaptation this is but, at the end of the day, there’s something here that doesn’t quite come off. File this one under S for ‘Should-Have-Been-Better’.