Pensioner Harold Fry (Jim Broadbent) is in his South Devon flat, watching the weft of the carpet shift as his wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton) attacks the living room with the Hoover. His trance is broken by the arrival of a handwritten letter carrying a shocking postmark.
“Who do we know in Berwick-on-Tweed?” he asks, incredulously.
It turns out they do have a connection to this seemingly exotic corner of England. Queenie, a former colleague of Harold’s, is dying alone in a Northumbrian hospice and writing to say goodbye. Harold gingerly picks up a Biro.
“Just say something you mean!” snaps Maureen. But Harold can’t find the right words. He walks out of the house to post his trite reply.
And he keeps walking. Harold will express his feelings through a bizarre feat of endurance. He will hike 500 miles to see his old friend before she dies.
This was the touching premise of screenwriter Rachel Joyce’s 2012 Booker-longlisted novel of the same name.
As he hobbles across the grass verges of England’s A-roads, flashbacks reveal the role Queenie played in a life-changing tragedy.
Attracting the attention of strangers and TV reporters, Harold’s quest inspires a Slovakian cleaner, who washes his bloodied feet, and a troubled young Christian, who wants to be his apostle.
Harold is no messiah. But this secular pilgrimage gives him the chance to reflect on the mystery of selfless acts of human kindness – and to atone for the past.
These chance encounters probably worked better on the page. On screen, the pace flags and the side characters feel too thinly sketched.
But the lead performances are terrific. Broadbent uses those twinkly eyes to devastating effect and Wilton is even better as the angry, abandoned wife.
The pauses in their strained phone conversations speak of decades of resentment and a deep well of love.