Jim Broadbent: Filming across England and in Yorkshire for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was ‘a delight’

Harold Fry is, by all estimates, a rather unremarkable man. In his sixties, recently retired, he lives in Devon with his wife Maureen – a marriage which, for many years, has merely been one of quiet co-existence.

However, one day, Harold’s unassuming life is transformed by the arrival of a letter. An old friend, Queenie, is dying: she’s written to say she’s been placed in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland.

Saddened by the news, Harold pens a letter of condolence, and sets off to walk to the post box. But when he reaches the post box, he can’t bring himself to post it. He walks on to another, then another, then another, but none of the red pillar boxes seem to be quite right as a way for Harold to convey his feelings.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Instead, he carries on walking – with nothing but his moccasins and raincoat – all the way through England to the edge of the Scottish border, using phone boxes and postcards along the way to ask Queenie to stay alive, to wait for him, as he’s on his way to her.

Jim Broadbent as Harold Fry.Jim Broadbent as Harold Fry.
Jim Broadbent as Harold Fry.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, adapted from Rachel Joyce’s 2012 novel of the same name, tells the charming story of Harold’s journey – which is equal parts heart-warming and heart-wrenching – with Oscar, BAFTA, Emmy and Golden Globe-winning Jim Broadbent in the titular role.

“I liked Harold’s journey, really,” says Broadbent, 73, of taking on the role.

“And the fact that he wakes up one morning in his rather quiet, unexciting life – probably rather sad life, probably very sad life… he’s in this marriage with Maureen, and he’s not communicating with her, and they’re having no fun, no joy in their life, and he gets this letter out of the blue and he completely acts against all his preconceived natures of how he would behave.

“And he just starts walking.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
A still from The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which was partly shot in Yorkshire.A still from The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which was partly shot in Yorkshire.
A still from The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which was partly shot in Yorkshire.

“I thought: that’s a really exciting decision, and to pursue that acting-wise is going to be fun.”

For writer Rachel Joyce, who wrote the screenplay from her novel, “Jim is the perfect Harold. He always was, right from the beginning”.

Broadbent had listened to the audiobook of Joyce’s novel, which she says he did “so tenderly”.

“I just thought well, I mean, you’re Harold, you’re clearly Harold, so there was never any question,” she adds of the casting decision.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
Jim Broadbent as Harold Fry and Penelope Wilton as Maureen Fry.Jim Broadbent as Harold Fry and Penelope Wilton as Maureen Fry.
Jim Broadbent as Harold Fry and Penelope Wilton as Maureen Fry.

On his journey, Harold has time to reflect on his life, his demons, and his regrets, and as the story unfolds the deeply-buried reason behind his mammoth walk becomes apparent as life-long pain bubbles to the surface.

Along the way, Harold meets all sorts of people who are willing to help and support him on his journey, and he discovers how valuable community can be after years of shielding himself away.

“The message is communicating, sharing, and being kind to each other, and looking out. Mountains can be scaled by just doing those simple things,” says Broadbent, astutely.

Left at home while Harold walks the length of England is his wife Maureen, played in the film by Downton Abbey and Doctor Who’s Dame Penelope Wilton. She’s angry, hurt, lonely and distraught, and becomes forced to break out of her self-imposed net curtain prison to seek help from her neighbours and community as she worries about the whereabouts of her husband.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I think it has an enormous amount to say about relationships and the communities we forge ourselves, and the communities which are forged about us,” says Wilton, 76, of the film.

“I mean, Maureen in this film becomes – suddenly, because she’s forced to – great friends with her neighbour Rex across the way, and out of that comes a very strong friendship… Out of desperation, she’s forced to make some sort of communication with somebody, because we are animals of wanting to be together, and we’re gregarious.”

This theme of community was at the forefront of Rachel Joyce’s mind as she adapted her novel to the film’s screenplay, which she largely worked on during the Covid lockdown.

“I think after lockdown, we’re all still emerging… I think for a little while, we had slightly forgotten how to relate to one another,” says Joyce.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Still, I feel there’s a sort of reticence, but also that we became slightly distrustful of what we don’t know… anything that didn’t feel the same. And the film is so much about going out, and trying to understand other people’s burdens that they’re carrying.

“We can walk past somebody in the street, and you just would have no idea of the thing that they were carrying, and Harold in his journey, just gradually, bit by bit, you see him opening up.”

Broadbent says he felt particularly connected to Harold’s journey because he, along with the film’s crew, physically completed it during filming.

Filming locations included Harold’s hometown of Kingsbridge in South Devon, Exeter, Bath, Sheffield – including Norton Woodseats and Chapeltown - Barnsley and Staincross, Darlington, Durham, Gateshead, and the final shots in Berwick-upon-Tweed, painting a beautiful portrait of England from south to north.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“We filmed it in sequence, more or less, the journey, starting in Devon and ending in Berwick,” says the star.

“So that mirrored the emotional journey as well, all the way up, which made the acting all much clearer and simpler in a way.

“I stayed in 12 different hotels on the journey… very different types of hotels and places. And it was a delight.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry comes to cinemas on Friday April 28.