This acquisition is more ‘Mudbound’ than ‘Mute.’
Netflix is spending billions to make itself a destination for original content you can enjoy without ever leaving your house. But the streaming service is also currently on a losing streak when it comes to creating and distributing films that people actually like. Critical drubbings given to Bright, The Cloverfield Paradox, and Mute may not actually matter to the company as long as the streaming numbers for those films are high (and indeed, Bright was apparently its biggest hit ever despite being loathed by critics everywhere). At the same time, if Netflix earns a reputation for being the straight-to-video bin of the new millennium, viewers will eventually stop wasting their time on it. The ease of not getting off your couch to watch a new movie won’t be enough if all those new movies are garbage.
The acquisition of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society may be a step in the right direction for Netflix — that is, down the road to critical acclaim paved by Dee Rees’s masterful Mudbound and this year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, Icarus. The historical drama directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) is adapted from the insanely popular epistolary novel of the same time and stars two likable and attractive leads hot off hit projects: Lily James (Baby Driver) and Michel Huisman (Game of Thrones). The ensemble cast is rounded out by Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton, Jessica Brown Findlay, and Tom Courtenay — a veritable gold mine of prestigious British actors who are used to wearing fancy period costumes and spouting elegant dialogue.
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is set in the years immediately following World War II and tells the story of a journalist (James) who heads to Guernsey to report on the titular society after exchanging letters with a resident of the island (Huisman). Netflix acquired the rights to stream the movie in North America, Latin America, Italy, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia, while StudioCanal will be releasing the film in the UK (where it opens on April 20th), Australia, New Zealand, France, and Germany.
This film sounds like the perfect thing to stream at home on your couch with a cup of tea, a plate of chocolate-covered biscuits, and a blanket in your lap. After all, while I’m sure the landscapes will be beautiful, it doesn’t strike me as something one needs to see on a big screen. It’s all very “Masterpiece Theater,” which is to say very classy and charming and appealing to a certain audience. And, if done well, it could be the key to the streaming service finally winning the Oscars — and the respect — it covets.
Only a few years have passed since Cary Joji Fukunaga’s haunting masterpiece Beasts of No Nation was released via Netflix and received very little awards love despite being one of the best films of the year and, in Idris Elba’s terrifying supporting turn as an African warlord, had by far the best performance of 2015. Since then, Netflix has scooped up a growing number of Oscar nominations each year, including eight at this year’s awards. Yet many feel that Mudbound could have earned more than its four nominations if it had been released by a traditional studio. Instead, many voters who oppose Netflix’s strategy of simultaneously releasing films on streaming and very limited theatrical runs chose to punish the company by denying them the chance to take home such lofty prizes as Best Picture or Best Director.
Is that fair? No, not really. Dee Rees is a talented filmmaker who deserves any accolades that come her way, no matter who releases her films. But if Netflix can earn a better reputation for creating and distributing original content, that will go a long way towards movies like Mudbound getting the attention they deserve. No insane number of streams for Bright, or its sequel, will change the perception of Netflix as a home for content that others deemed unworthy of the big screen. But, picking up films with a pedigrees like that of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society should help.