By: Russ Matthews

Untapped potential has been at the heart of stories throughout the history of cinema, novels, and humanity.

For some discovering their life’s purpose may come early in their lives, while for others, it comes in the later seasons of their existence. Rachel Joyce’s novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry taps into this need with the title character as he realises he must do something for his forgotten friend despite being advanced in years.

Harold Fry (Jim Broadbent) lives an ordinary and quiet life in Devon, England, with his wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton) until their tranquility is interrupted by a letter from an old friend. Queenie (Linda Bassett) is a former work colleague who has been estranged from the couple for years, but she writes to share with them that she is dying of cancer in a hospice. Initially, Harold chooses to write his friend a letter until he is unexpectedly inspired by a petrol station attendant to give Queenie hope by believing she can survive. As the simple man steps out of the station, this action starts his journey on foot to Berwick-upon-Tweed, a 600-mile trek to Northern England. This leads to an exploration of his past, present, and future as one who begins to see the value of doing something with his 65 years of life despite his past mistakes.

A Journey Into the Spiritual Side of Life

This faith journey stands out because it shows how the simplest incidents can lead to life-changing events. Admittedly, Harold Fry’s story is fictitious and could be dismissed and catagorised as a mere fairy tale, but this would be unfortunate. Rachel Joyce digs into the inexplicable nature of the spiritual realm and how this connects us all to the human experience. The personal odyssey of her central character shows us all how we are meant for something more than ordinary life. Also, when people take that step of faith, many may be inspired by this response to living. Granted, her solutions lead to unfulfilling answers to the purposes of life, but the author’s story opens the door to considerations and better conclusions.

At the heart of this pilgrimage, Jim Broadbent (The Duke) convincingly travels through all the layers of emotional and physical challenges. His performance shows how experiences like this lead to a person’s awakening and how others factor into this transformation. Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey) supports his portrayal subtly, yet brilliantly, as his long-suffering wife. Both actors manage to capture the essence of this couple as they fight their way through these necessary changes within their relationship and the healing it provides for them.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is confronting, challenging and may leave many viewers perplexed by its less-than-resolute ending. Yet, this story should leave people asking themselves what they can do with the life they have been given and considering the purpose behind their choices.

Reel Dialogue: Life’s purpose

The search for purpose and meaning is unique to the human condition. Yet for many the words of Solomon can ring true when it comes to life and purpose –

“Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless!

Rachel Joyce’s novel approach to finding purpose screams from the deeper recesses of this short passage in Ecclesiastes by digging into humanity’s questions about our goals in this existence.

Similar to the words of Solomon, this film thrusts the door open wide to the consideration of where purpose and solace can be found. But…If you read the other writings in the Bible, you would find that God created each person to be an active player in His creation, living an abundant life filled with purpose.

Now that has some meaning!

If you would like to discuss the issues associated with faith & purpose, reach out to us at Third Space. We would love to chat with you about this and more.


Article supplied with thanks to City Bible Forum.

All images: Movie stills

About the author: Russ Matthews is a film critic at City Bible Forum and Reel Dialogue. He has a passion for film and sparking spiritual conversations.