There are few things as frightening or as potent as the realisation of our own mortality. It's the one certainty there is, and because of this, because of how inevitable and finite it is, we never feel prepared for it. We are obviously concerned about the things we have left to do, but there's also the reconciling of the things we have done, the impact we have made on the world. Most of us will live little lives in the grand scheme of things, small and contained and quiet, but to each of us, our lives are a hurricane, with moments of awe and quiet, chaos and destruction. It's that destruction that weighs on us, the mistakes we have made and the pain we might have caused. Before we ultimately shuffle off this mortal coil, how do we reconcile ourselves with these things? It's an enormous question, and one that is tackled beautifully in 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry', a film that, behind its twee premise, speaks to those deeply frightening and deeply human fears.
One morning, Harold Fry (Jim Broadbent, 'Cloud Atlas') receives a letter from an old work colleague Queenie, living in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. They haven't spoken in many decades, but Queenie has decided to reach out to Harold after her diagnosis with terminal cancer. Unsure of what to do, Harold writes a short reply to her letter, but when he goes to post the letter, something feels amiss. Instead of posting it, Harold decides, then and there, to walk the over 400 miles to see Queenie, much to the bafflement and distress of his wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton, 'Downtown Abbey'). Over the course of his journey, Harold meets and inspires countless people, none of whom are aware of the deep trauma the trip is bringing up for Harold, about his relationship with Queenie and the devastating loss that came to define their friendship.
Based on the 2012 novel by Rachel Joyce (which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize), 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry' subverts expectations by taking familiar folksy tropes and underpinning them with powerful themes and a keen and considered cinematic approach. We're used to the idea of these inspirational British comedy-dramas, where a group of senior citizens get up to some sort of mischief in the English countryside, but where those films often feel like they were designed as a good time for all involved and all watching, 'Harold Fry' asks genuine questions about mortality, loss, regret and letting go, the unexpected pilgrimage acting as a catalyst for Harold and Maureen facing what lies behind and what lies ahead. Key to the success is the collaboration between Joyce (who also wrote the screenplay) and director Hettie Macdonald. While the dialogue can occasionally be a touch ham-fisted, Joyce has a keen understanding of the difference between novel and film, giving ample space for the tremendous cast to inhabit these characters without the need to verbalise their experiences. This offer is taken up beautifully by Macdonald, who not only gives the film plenty of space to breathe but understands the importance of placing Harold within the landscape he is traversing. The gorgeous English countryside isn't simply a backdrop but also a character, a companion, an adversary and a physical manifestation of the chaos in Harold's heart. The direction of the film is perhaps its strongest element, which considering Macdonald's filmography, should come as no surprise. She has mostly worked in television since her beloved debut film 'Beautiful Thing' (1996), but her most prestigious credit to date is the second (and better) half of the acclaimed 2020 adaptation of Sally Rooney's 'Normal People'. With this film, she demonstrates the same care with character psychology and delicate attention to visual detail, all to the film's benefit.
As a result, there's a much stronger emotional core to 'Harold Fry' than you expect. It is clear from the moment we see them that Harold and Maureen have long since given up, both on their marriage and their lives, allowing themselves to be caught in an endless cycle of routine and familiarity. Rather than Harold's journey providing whimsey to their lives, it creates a disruption that both uplifts and crushes them. Harold tells Queenie to stay alive for him, that he's coming to save her, to give her the strength and will to get better, but what becomes clear through careful plotting and execution is that Harold's need to save Queenie is a much bigger struggle, ultimately to absolve himself of a failure that continues to eat him alive. For Maureen, the chaos that Harold causes with his walk is almost too much to bear, disrupting the familiarity of her routine and throwing her purpose within their shared life into question. There are countless moving moments in 'Harold Fry', but some of the most devastating come with Maureen, her determination to hold herself together failing as she comes apart at the seams.
There are also some astute observations about the dangers of collective inspiration, in a weird way criticising the kind of film you expect 'Harold Fry' to be. As Harold makes his arduous journey, others come to join him and form a community around him, but their need to find something to believe in isn't the same as that of Harold's. Theirs is general and a touch performative, while his is specific and high-stakes. They need to believe that Harold's journey means something, something bigger than Harold, but what could be bigger than the pain in Harold's heart, a pain he is almost incapable of expressing. The film threatens to buckle under its repeated philosophy that "all people are inherently good" towards the end of its second act, but Macdonald and Joyce are too clever a pair of storytellers to fall into that trap, leading the way for a simple and quietly devastating third act.
For Maureen, the chaos that Harold causes with his walk is almost too much to bear, disrupting the familiarity of her routine and throwing her purpose within their shared life into question.
For all its attributes, the film would not be as affecting as it is were it not for Jim Broadbent and Penelope Wilton. Broadbent has become such a staple of our screens, often relegated to quirky supporting characters, but it's been a long time since we've seen him given such rich material and such a meaty challenge. He carries Harold's journey with a quiet grace, a delicate touch and tremendous humanity, reminding us of what an extraordinary talent he is. While it isn't as shattering a revelation as Bill Nighy's luminous performance in 'Living', it does have a similar effect of jolting you into realising how much we had taken Broadbent for granted. The same can be said, arguably more so, with Penelope Wilton. I can't remember the last time we saw her in a role this deserving of her. The film could easily have relegated Maureen to just the worried wife at home, but Wilton is given so much opportunity to break your heart with her weariness, her confusion and her anguish. Her performance is the highlight of the film, both because of how skilled and moving it is but also by giving us a chance to see this legendary actor in the spotlight after so long.
While it does fall into a few traps inherent to this kind of British drama, particularly a consistent pace that rarely shifts, there's so much to be admired in 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry'. It leaves you with a palpable sense of weary melancholy, the kind that comes from a long emotional journey. We connect so much with Harold and Maureen, the burdens they carry with them and the hopes they dare to dream and the convictions that drives them to take control back of their lives in their twilight years. This isn't a piece of pap sentimentality about living your best life but a considered, honest and generous meditation on how we reconcile the life we have led as that life starts to come to an end. Through Harold's eyes, we see it all anew, see the beauty and complexity of the world around us and our role within it, the impact we can make on one another and the humanity that, deep down, we all possess. Perhaps that's the greatest compliment I can pay to 'The Unexpected Pilgrimage of Harold Fry' - it's a deeply humane film, and such films are always worth the journey.