By Janine Gericke.
Based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop takes place in a conservative coastal village in 1950’s England (though the backdrop is actually Northern Ireland). Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) is a widow who moves to the seaside town to follow her dream of opening a bookshop. Along the way she gets entangled with an unlikely suitor (Bill Nighy) and runs afoul of the town’s grand dame (Patricia Clarkson). Unfortunately, even with such a stellar cast, the story tends to drag on. Nighy usually lights up when on screen, but he isn’t given enough to bring that out in this film. The characters do have some moments to shine that make you laugh or wring your hands in tension, but they are few and far between.
Florence finds the perfect new home in The Old House Book Shop. Years ago she had met her late husband in a bookshop, so the store is not only her passion but also an homage to her lost love. From the second Florence arrives she deals with pushback from the community, led by local matriarch Violet Gamart (Clarkson), who plans to turn the old house into an arts center. Evidently, this is a town lacking book lovers. Florence, determined to build the bookshop of her dreams, ignores the snarky comments and attempted setbacks thrown her way.
Florence meets the town recluse and widower Edmund Brundish (Nighy), who appears to be the only like-minded person in town. Their budding relationship gives Mortimer and Nighy brilliant screen time together. Edmund and Florence’s relationship begins with a series of letters he writes requesting books be sent to his home. Instead of having Florence read these letters out loud, or show us the text, Coixet has Edmund read them to the camera, to Florence. This storytelling device is a lovely way to bring us into the story. The two do eventually meet face to face, and these scenes are certainly some of the film’s best.
Edmund’s love of books inspires Florence. Afterall, this is the reason why she wanted to open a shop in the first place, to introduce people to the works that she loves and believes are important. She sends him books by Ray Bradbury and Vladimir Nabokov, which he completely devours. There are underlying threats of banned books and censorship sprinkled throughout. This blooms when Edmund agrees that Florence should sell Nabokov’s Lolita in her shop. She creates a window display for the book, which does intrigue some people of the village, but only fuels Violet’s distaste of Florence and her shop. Florence has a duty to open people’s minds to something new and she does not care who she offends.
Clarkson gives a disquieting performance as Florence’s nemesis Violet. In at least two scenes, we catch glimpses of Violet’s violent tendencies when things don’t go her way. In one, she reads a letter regarding the Lolita window display at the bookshop. Furious, she is just about to throw a porcelain dog statue, but the scene cuts to the exterior of her home, where we hear the statue hit the floor. Later in the film, Edmund visits her to plead that she leave Florence alone. Once Edmund leaves the room, we see only a close-up of her white knuckled hands tightly gripping her dress. These subtle moments are well done, showing us the tension that I’m sure everyone in the town often feels.
The strongest elements of this film are its stunning setting and painterly compositions. There are many scenes of the camera panning along full shelves of bound volumes in Florence’s shop. You can almost smell the sea salt, paper pulp, and binding glue.
The story is all too familiar though, following a particular formula. There are nosy locals who just want to prevent Florence from opening her shop; loner widow/widower characters who are bound to develop a relationship; a forceful character who speaks for the people of the village. The Bookshop has plenty of beauty and charm, but leaves something to be desired.
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.