An Unlikely tale of Contrition and Kindness

Adapted from Rachel Joyce’s bestselling novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a deceptively simple tale of a man that walks the length of England, imagining that the act itself will prevent an old friend from dying. It’s no surprise that Jim Broadbent was cast as the eponymous pilgrim who, to the consternation of his long-suffering wife, sets off without a plan, money or sensible shoes.

Harold’s wife is played by Penelope Wilton, deftly providing the grit in a film that could so easily have slipped into sentimental mire. Far from being supportive, she is both frustrated and bemused by an act that we subsequently learn is one of contrition. For at the heart of the film is an unresolved guilt that festers within a marriage in name only. The nature of that guilt, and the rationale for Harold’s pilgrimage, is teasingly revealed through flashbacks that are darker in tone that the source novel, despite the screenplay coming from Joyce herself. More akin to the book is the kindness Harold receives from strangers, played by a host of reliable British actors that add depth to their tiny roles.

Directed by Hettie Macdonald, someone best known for her TV work, this is a classic British film – small, but perfectly formed. It arguably teeters close to magic realism at times – only a dunderhead would question the practicalities of the task Harold stoically sets himself – yet retains an emotional spine grounded in reality. Coupling beautiful cinematography from Kate McCullough with haunted music by Sam Lee, this is a feel-good shaggy dog tale of dogged endeavour in the face of impossible odds, but it’s actually far more than that, being an exploration of faith in a secular world, the power of goodness to heal and redeem, and how ordinary people can do extraordinary things.