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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

An image of Jim Broadbent and Dame Penelope Wilton smiling at each other

“The kindness of strangers is a wonderful thing.”

Jim Broadbent and Dame Penelope Wilton discuss their latest film, possible pilgrimages, and the impact of generosity.


For both Jim Broadbent and Dame Penelope Wilton, a career on stage and screen has been a journey that has lasted for more than 50 years and is still going strong.

In that time, both actors have portrayed an extensive list of memorable characters – from Jim’s real-life loveable rogue Kempton Bunton in last year's The Duke, to Dame Penelope’s driven and dependable Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey. Both have also played important roles for Age UK; Jim appeared in our Emergency Coronavirus Appeal in 2020, while Dame Penelope has attended and read at our annual Love Christmas carol concerts.

Harold Fry 1.jpgBut despite their overlapping decades of stardom, Jim and Dame Penelope’s paths have rarely crossed on screen. In fact, their latest film – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – marks their first shared screen credit since 2001’s Iris, a biopic of novelist Iris Murdoch in which Jim played Iris' husband John and won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Cross-country communication

Released in cinemas on 28 April and based on the best-selling novel of the same name, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry stars Jim as the 60-something Harold, with Dame Penelope as his wife Maureen. The emotional drama follows Harold as he walks the length of England to visit a friend who’s dying of cancer, while keeping in touch with wife Maureen along the way.

“There are a lot of phone calls in the film – both that he makes to me and that I make to him,” explains Dame Penelope, “but they weren’t the easiest things to do. Jim was in a portable phone box which was taken across the country for filming, and I used to be alerted when they were ready to shoot our phone call scenes. I knew which day we were filming but not the time, so I’d get a call to ‘stand by’! But I was just at home, so I would have to get myself sorted and into ‘Maureen mode’, as it were.

Harold Fry 3.jpg“I had learned the lines but kept the script nearby just in case!” Dame Penelope laughs.

These phone calls offer both characters a means of connection during lonely or difficult times, and often highlight the complexity of Harold and Maureen’s marriage. “I think Harold sort of misjudged the effect his walk was having on Maureen,” Jim reveals. “He thought she’d be quite glad to have him out of the way, and he didn’t empathise about what he was doing.”

“She was furious with him,” Dame Penelope continues. “Maureen was stuck at home behind those four walls, and felt even more separated from Harold. He was having a life, and she wasn’t having a life. So, the phone calls play an enormous part in their relationship.”

Life lessons

Harold Fry 4.jpgDespite Harold’s pilgrimage beginning as a solo adventure, he ends up being helped by numerous strangers along the way – with one character even offering him medical help and a bed for the night.

“Harold’s a bit shy and wrongfooted to start with because he’s rather inexperienced in socialising,” Jim explains. “But he’s kind to the people he meets, and it’s often reciprocated. By the end, he’s got people dancing around him and cheering him on and he’s more accepting of the world.”

Themes of acceptance and forgiveness run throughout the film, as both Harold and Maureen work to atone for old regrets. What kind of message do Jim and Dame Penelope hope that might send to audiences? “I hope people will take away from the film what they want to take away from it,” says Dame Penelope, “but I think that being kind to others is the most important thing, and that can offer a way to redemption and making amends.”

Jim agrees: “The kindness of strangers is a wonderful thing. If you are kind, it welcomes kindness and opens the door.”

New journeys

After filming Harold’s journey of nearly 500 miles, would that inspire Jim and Dame Penelope to go on pilgrimages of their own?

“I might go to Santiago de Compostela – at least it’s warm there!” Dame Penelope laughs. “But you’d definitely have to depend on the kindness of strangers there, because you can’t take anything with you.”

“But there’d probably be somebody else on the walk with you,” Jim points out. “I’d quite like to do that one too. Or maybe I’ll just go to Canterbury!”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is in cinemas from 28 April.

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Last updated: Mar 12 2024

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