Cinema: Harold Fry's unlikely, sweet but rather dissatisfying pilgrimage

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (12a), (108 mins), Cineworld Cinemas

Presumably the key word in the title is Unlikely. The longer the film goes on, the more this whimsical tale of hope and redemption feels like pure fairy tale – which is hardly a criticism. It is uplifting and rather lovely. It’s just its links to the real world that you end up questioning. But maybe the point is that we should all try to be like Harold, however unlikely his tale. The gist is that Harold and Maureen are an elderly married couple estranged from each other in their own home, separated from each other by a past tragedy which takes the film as long to unravel as it does for Harold to walk his great journey. It is a tragedy teased out slowly – a tragedy which the great trek makes Harold face. The catalyst for it all is a letter from his old friend Queenie to tell Harold that she is dying. Harold initially writes the blandest, barest of letters and knows it’s hardly enough. Repeatedly he can’t post it. But then a chance conversation with a blue-haired girl in a petrol station sends him on his way. She tells him that her aunt had cancer but the key thing was to hope – and Harold instantly, almost inexplicably, takes that to heart in the boldest way possible. Without stopping to pick up anything, to change or even to let his wife know, he decides that he is going to walk the nearly-500 miles to Berwick from Devon to see Queenie in her hospice. Of course, it’s all wrapped up in symbolism. He’s expiating something. It’s an extreme response. And we await to find out quite why as the back story is revealed so tantalisingly slowly. Which is what makes it quite such an unsettling film to watch. It’s clear the past tragedy centres on Harold’s son of whom there is no sign to be seen. Obviously something awful happened. Obviously Harold can’t forgive himself. And for the sake of the film it is held back until virtually the end. Which is rather manipulative. You find yourself waiting for the horror.

And there are other oddities. All of a sudden Harold’s great trek is national news, leading all the papers – without any of the media having spoken to him directly. How likely is that? Ah, but this is Harold’s unlikely pilgrimage. And then he gathers a travelling, singing circus of fellow pilgrims around him. How likely would he be to tolerate them all, given how intensely personal his pilgrimage is. Ah, but this is Harold’s unlikely pilgrimage. And then when he realises he absolutely has to go it alone, he does so, with not a single news outlet showing the slightest sign of interest from that moment on. As he nears his goal, the papers and television channels have dropped him totally. How likely is that? Ah, but this is Harold’s unlikely pilgrimage. Unlikely, bizarre and just a little irritating. But maybe it’s what it leaves you with that matters more in the end – the notion that Harold who has never done anything in his life is now doing something; the notion that we actually need precious little with us on our life’s journey. And in that respect the film is beautiful, moving and empowering. But all the same it’s weird and slightly dissatisfying too.

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