Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Isabel Coixet
Stars: Emily Mortimer, Bill Night, Patricia Clarkson, Honor Kneafsey, James Lance, Reg Wilson, Hunter Tremayne, Frances Barber, Julie Christie.
The Bookshop is set in the sleepy small coastal village of Hardborough in 1959. Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) is a war widow who relocates to this small town with the aim of opening a bookshop. She loves books and wants to share this love with the townsfolk. She takes possession of the decaying old residence known locally as “the old house” and transforms it into the bookshop. She hopes to introduce the townsfolk to some great works of literature.
However, Mrs Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) has other ideas. A powerful figure in the town she had planned to turn the old house into a local arts centre. She uses her wealth, power and influence to subtly bring pressure to bear to try and thwart Florence’s plans. Florence receives help in the shop from young local girl Christine (Honor Kneafsey, also seen in the murder mystery Crooked House, etc) an outspoken child who works as her assistant.
Florence also finds an unexpected ally in the reclusive Edmund Brundish (the wonderful Bill Nighy), an avid reader himself. She introduces him to authors like Ray Bradbury and Nabakov, which he devours even though he says that the locals may not understand or appreciate them. A platonic friendship develops between the two. But Brundish and Florence find themselves pitted against the stuffy small minded and petty attitude of the town’s residents and the manipulations of Mrs Gamart.
Traditional bookshops seem to be dying a slow death with the increasing popularity of e-readers and kindles, etc, which adds a rather melancholic tone to this bittersweet, but slightly uneven and dull adaptation of the bestselling 1978 novel written by the late Penelope Fitzgerald, which was short listed for the Booker Prize. The film has been adapted from Fitzgerald’s novel by Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet (2007’s The Secret Life Of Words, etc), and her script remains reasonably faithful to the source material. She suffuses the material with a genteel surface but gives it a darker heart. She brings an outsider’s perspective to this quintessentially British setting, and it explores themes of class, social expectations, tradition versus progress, the power of words and ideas. And the references to Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451 and its themes of book burning and censorship subtly hint at one of the film’s main themes as well.
The Bookshop boasts some great production design from Llorenc Miguel, and it has been beautifully shot by cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrier (who shot Coixet’s The Secret Life Of Words, etc)who imbues this vision of provincial post WWII England with a hint of grimness. Ireland’s windswept coast doubles for the picturesque village of Hardborough here. It is probably not surprising that The Bookshop became the first English language film to win the Goya, the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar.
Coixet draws excellent performances from her cast. Mortimer is superb as Florence who finds herself frustrated by the manipulations of Mrs Gamart. Clarkson’s despicable character has a polite veneer, but she is sort of like the steel fist encased in a velvet glove, and she portrays the conniving bitch really well. She gives the character a hard edge. This is the fourth film that has featured Mortimer and Clarkson, who both appeared together recently in Sally Potter’s claustrophobic black and white drama The Party. Nighy tinges his character with a wistful edge as well as a slightly cynical and ironic edge. Julie Christie’s dry wistful narration gives us insights into the nature of the town and its small-minded inhabitants. Only at the end do we realise who her character actually is.
The Bookshop is both a love letter to the traditional bookshops and also something of a labour of love for Coixet. But I found it slightly old fashioned in style and a tad dull.