The Bookshop, adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, by writer/director Isabel Coixet, is a genteel and veddy British film. One might expect it to turn up on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, or on Acorn TV, rather than at the local cinema.
This minor drama, set in 1959, concerns a widow, Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), who pursues her dream to open a bookstore in an historic old house in a sleepy coastal English village. Her love of reading, however, while palpable, is not infectious. The town banker, Mr. Keble (Hunter Tremayne), claims he falls asleep after reading three pages, and the local fisherman, Mr. Raven (Michael Fitzgerald) says he does not read at all. Moreover, Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), wants to open an art center in the historic old house, and aims to put Florence out of business. Likewise, Milo North (James Lance) does not have much hope for Florence’s endeavors, indicating as much when they meet.
However, two folks in town applaud the widow’s efforts. One is Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), a mysterious figure in the village who generally does not wander much outside his estate. The other is Christine (Honor Kneafsey), a charming—but not cloying, nor too precocious—young girl who gets a job in the bookshop.
The film unfolds at an unhurried pace; the drama that ensues is hardly the stuff of page-turning excitement. But it is engaging. Florence develops a friendship with Edmund after sending him a copy of Fahrenheit 451, which he devours. She asks his advice about ordering Lolita, a book sure to ruffle the feathers of the repressed townsfolk. Meanwhile, Violet put a scheme in motion to gain control of the historic old house after facing a setback. And Christine develops a close relationship with Florence. It’s all very proper, but never boring.
If the characters are mostly one-dimensional, and the plotting largely without surprise, The Bookshop provides much cozy comfort as Florence screws up her courage to confront those folks who doubt and test her, such as her ineffectual solicitor (Jorge Suquet). Mortimer makes Florence sympathetic, because she is a voice of reason going gently against the larger society to open minds while also pursuing her own happiness. She has a particularly notable exchange with Edmund when he invites her over for tea one afternoon where he encourages her efforts. Another encounter, with Kattie (Charlotte Vega), Milo North’s girlfriend, is also quite satisfying in showing how these two “modern” women see things as they are, not as others want them to be.
Such moments are why the film is so gratifying. When Florence’s livelihood is threatened in the last act, viewers will find themselves caring about the fate of the heroine and her dream.
Despite the character’s nastiness, the film is quite polite. The scenery is picturesque, transporting viewers to this small English village with its enchanting views, and the costumes, such as Florence’s deep maroon dress, are lovely.
The performances are also appropriately fine. Bill Nighy is superb as always as the thoughtful Mr. Brundish, a man who may not be what the gossips in town say he is. A scene between him and Violet is particularly juicy. As Violet, Patricia Clarkson may be seem miscast as a Brit, but her expressions suitably convey the character’s villainy. Just watch her face as she throws a tchotchke across the room in a fit of anger.
Ultimately, The Bookshop delivers an important message about conformity and it generates some real emotion. The film may not spark the lasting memory of a good book, but Coixet’s film is a decent time filler for Anglophiles.
The Bookshop opens today at the Ritz East.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.