The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2023)

April 22nd, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Hettie Macdonald; Cast: Jim Broadbent, Penelope Wilton, UK Drama, 108′.

Jim Broadbent and Penelope Wilton star in this sentimental tearjerker from first time film director Hettie MacDonald, 

Broadbent is Harold Fry, in his early sixties, living in a seaside backwater in Devon with his chipper wife Maureen (Wilton). The marriage has been blighted by the death of their only son David (Cave) whose drug addiction led to suicide, and they are no longer on speaking terms. Then out of the blue comes a letter from Queenie, a former colleague  and friend. She is signing off from a hospice in Berwick-on Tweed, suffering from terminal cancer.

A chance encounter with a woman at a petrol station – called simply ‘Garage Girl’ (Singh) sends Harold off on a walking trek to the Scottish border – inspired by her bid to keep her friend Queenie spiritually alive. Needless to say the story is made up, but Harold is already on his way, gathering with him a crowd of followers, when his story captures the imagination of the press, and a stray dog. Harold befriends one time drug addict Mick (Thiara) who is soon phased out due to his relapse. When Harold arrives at the hospice he gets cold feet, and it’s Maureen’s turn to support him.

Hettie MacDonald’s first stab at a feature film is influenced by her TV work (Dr Who), this lending an episodic nature to proceedings. Some of the scenes feel contrived, particularly those with the younger Harold and Maureen (Cullinale/Jackson Smith) playing perfect family, but mature Maureen’s encounters with neighbour Rex (Mydell), who has given up on live after the death of his wife, seem much more genuine in a dramatic arc often marred by false endings, and an overgenerous running time. DoP Kate McCullogh strives for meaningful images beyond the usual road-movie fare, but it all feels visually rather bland. 

The Pilgrimage wants to be about redemption and loss, and Penelope Wilton certainly captures these emotional nuances as a woman left alone in her grief – Harold even stays outside the crematorium chapel at his son’s funeral – Maureen taking her revenge by not giving him a message from Queenie. She had taken the sack for Harold after he partly destroyed their brewery workplace.  Wilton is the perfect foil for Broadbent’s “hang dog” character, he believes that a single deed could make up for his lifelong denial of emotion. Overall, the powerful acting helps to compensate for the sometimes unfocused direction. AS

NOW ON RELEASE from 28 April in UK Cinemas

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