Film Review: The Bookshop

A delicately conceived and beautifully acted tragicomedy about a widow in an insular post-war British community who is determined to open a bookstore in a place overflowing with detractors.
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The Bookshop is an exquisitely understated tragicomedy set in a parochial East Anglican coastal community in 1959. Adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s multi-hued 1978 novel and directed by Isabel Coixet (Elegy, Learning to Drive), the film centers on middle-aged war widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), who loves to read, can’t imagine others might not share her passion (or doesn’t care), and decides to open a bookshop.

It’s a world awash in mean-spirited gossip, cliques and power struggles despite excessive formalities/etiquette (e.g., calling cards, well-appointed ritual tea-times) and exemplary manners that define almost all private, social and business relations. Nobody interrupts anyone else and voices are rarely raised.

Right from the get-go, Florence is up against a host of “quirky” detractors, including her Dickensian/Kafkaesque banker, who speaks a kind of doubletalk (Hunter Tremayne); her ineffectual or perhaps deliberately undermining attorney (Jorge Suquet); a sleazebag BBC producer, Milo North (James Lance) and, most pivotal, Mrs. Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), the town’s villainous doyenne who ostensibly wants the bookshop space—dubbed “Old House”—for a public art center. But it’s really her obsessive need to be the Queen Bee in all things. You do not cross swords with Mrs. Gamart and expect to come out unscathed. “Why don’t you think it over?” she icily suggests to Florence in a fixed smile, her over-powdered face resembling a death mask.

But Florence has her boosters too: Christine (Honor Kneafsey), a precocious, outspoken child who serves as an assistant in Florence’s bookshop, and the reclusive, misanthropic bibliophile Mr. Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), who values Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel set in the future where book-burning is the norm.

For reasons that remain debatable, he himself burns book jackets. Perhaps he does so because he doesn’t need to be reminded through photos and blurbs that living human beings have created the far more valuable inanimate books. The gesture also metaphorically evokes the inevitable dangers of an anti-intellectual culture. On its journey to the screen, the deeply personal novel (shortlisted for the Booker Prize) has gained a political note, though it’s subtly handled.

Framing the film, with a few interspersed snippets throughout, we have a voiceover narrator (Julie Christie, who starred in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451) setting up the scenes and commenting on the unfolding events. Some of her observations are lifted from the novel and initially told from a third-person perspective, suggesting in tone and style a “Once upon a time” story (after all this is a film about books). But towards the end, the narrator is talking about herself (fiction has become memoir) and we realize (no big spoiler here) that the speaker is Christine as a mature woman looking back. It’s a perfect device for Coixet’s artful adaptation that arguably gives the film a clearer vision and more defined focal point than the original printed work.

Literacy, free speech and small-town provincialism are leitmotifs. Even the few townsfolk who give lip-service support to the bookstore admit they either don’t read at all, or if they do (and it’s rare at best), its purpose is to put them to sleep and it usually succeeds.

The complacent community is of course appalled by the publication of Lolita, now prominently displayed in the store’s windows. They’ve never read the controversial Nabokov novel, though that doesn’t stop them from protesting. However, genteel to the core, they’re not objecting to the book’s content but rather the disruptive crowds who’ve gathered in front of the bookstore window, thereby blocking pedestrian traffic and violating the neighborhood’s comfort level.

Preservation, gentrification, class, social clout and unscrupulous behind-the-scenes political machinations are nicely touched upon. So too are missed opportunities, suppressed, unrequited and lost love.

Still mourning her late husband whom she met in a bookshop, Florence nostalgically recalls those moments. By contrast, married for only six months, Edmund was dumped by his wife decades earlier. While feelings of desertion and regret are history—he dryly notes that his wife grew fat, very, very fat—he’s nonetheless, isolated and immobilized. He never remarried.

Both Florence and Edmund are outliers living alone in ancient, dilapidated dwellings—she in a long-since-abandoned, drafty and mold-infested building; he in a cavernous, at one time elegant estate now overgrown with denuded bushes and weeds. Each recognizes a kindred spirit in the other and they forge a kind of bond through letter writing that centers on books. She sends him works she thinks he might like—e.g., Fahrenheit 451—and ultimately asks him for his spin on Lolita. He invites her to his home to discuss the book. Sitting at the head of his dining room table, barely making eye contact with his guest who has brought a Bundt cake, slices it and serves him (nice details), he urges her to buy the book for her shop. Its patrons won’t understand it anyway, he points out. “But that’s all for the best… Understanding makes the mind lazy.”

It’s a scene vivid with crosscurrents, erudite, comic and sad. Next time they meet—their second and final encounter—he confesses, “You make me believe once more in things I’d long forgotten.” If only they had met at another time in life, he adds. It’s a layered, painful moment and the centerpiece of a film that belongs to a dated, rarely seen genre (Think Ladies in Lavender), but that doesn’t stop it from packing a wallop.

Coixet has pulled together one fine ensemble: Mortimer as the sensitive, thoughtful yet determined bookseller; Nighy’s suppressed and disappointed intellectual hermit; and especially Clarkson’s turn as a bitch on wheels, British-style. Some might find her performance scenery-chewing, but for me it’s fun and hits just the right note. Clarkson, who is consistently excellent, previously worked with Coixet in Elegy and Learning to Drive (two seriously flawed films). The smaller roles in The Bookshop are served up with aplomb too. A quibble: Accents are either a generic British or all over the map.

Llorenç Miquel’s production design—from the dishes to the decoration to the furniture and its placement—feels authentic.Alfonso de Vilallonga’s score, at times haunting, at other times light and frothy, seamlessly melds with the material and evokes the era. But most impressive and relevant, Jean-Claude Larrieu’s cinematography captures the oppressive indoor spaces (even when they’re sizeable) and the expansive seaside scenes hinting at freedom, which will always elude our protagonists rooted in a genteel community with a dark underbelly.