‘The Bookshop’ evokes nostalgia for all things literary

( PG ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) loves books and decides to convert the run-down home she owns and occupies into a bookshop, the only one within many miles.

Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment
Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) unpacks books in her shop in 'The Bookshop.'

As a passionate devotee of bricks-and-mortar bookstores, I would be partial to a movie called “The Bookshop” even if ninjas were running the shop. Whatever it takes these days to get people to go out and buy books. 

Based on the 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald and written and directed by Isabel Coixet, “The Bookshop” is set far enough in the past – 1959, in the English coastal town of Hardborough in Suffolk – to evoke an instant nostalgia for all things literary. If nothing else, it makes you want to stock up on Penguin paperbacks.

Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) was widowed 16 years ago but still reveres the memory of her bookish husband. She, too, loves books and decides to convert the run-down home she owns and occupies into a bookshop, the only one within many miles. It’s a daring enterprise since the coastal inhabitants – a mix of working-class and upper echelon – are apparently not big readers. (The local bank manager says he falls asleep after reading three pages of any novel, inspiring Florence to tout books as a cure for insomnia.)  

The one notable exception is Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), a crusty widower who has essentially been a recluse for decades. He does love to read, but as the film’s narrative voice-over tells us, he dislikes the idea that actual people wrote the books. He wants to believe that the novels came about through “spontaneous generation” and spends quality time tearing off and burning any dust jacket carrying the likeness of its author.

Yes, this is all very eccentric English behavior indeed, and “The Bookshop” indulges in quite a bit of it, often to its detriment. For a movie that is about a collection of oddballs, it can sometimes feel rather generic. But at its core, the film is not a comedy at all. The eccentricities issue from real adversity.

Florence’s chief adversary is Violet Gamart, played by Patricia Clarkson (the only American in the cast and sporting a spot-on British accent). Violet is the town’s reigning society matron, and she wants to take the bookstore away from Florence and turn it into an “arts center,” showcasing lectures and chamber music concerts. This certainly sounds better than converting it into, say, a gymnasium or a pool hall, but her real impetus for meddling is pure narcissism. She can’t abide anybody else acting as any kind of arbiter of taste, least of all someone who does not occupy her social stratum. Against her many machinations, Florence, despite her own formidable flintiness, is no match. Her only ally turns out to be Edmund. When she impulsively orders 250 copies of Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous “Lolita,” he approves and tells her, “They won’t understand it, but that’s all for the best. Understanding makes the mind lazy.” 

Coixet is rather heavy-handed in making her classist points. A festive ball that Florence, self-conscious in a deep maroon dress, attends comes across like a collection of glittering snobs, with Florence standing out as a hopelessly downscale ugly duckling. It also doesn’t help that the community is so sketchily filled in that it’s never clear whether a bookstore would indeed serve its people or engender new readers. Coixet also overuses her voice-over narrator to make plot points, even though I hasten to add that the narrator’s voice belongs to Julie Christie (too long absent from flesh-and-blood performing, alas). 

But the acting in the film mostly triumphs over these defects. Mortimer is filmed too often against gloomy, poetic seascapes, but she doesn’t need all that extra padding. She convincingly expresses Florence’s fire and sorrow. 

Clarkson never takes the easy way out by turning Violet into a cardboard villain. It’s a remarkably pure performance, affirming once again the actor’s truism that a scoundrel should never be played as such. They all think they have their reasons. And Nighy, who has perhaps the most difficult role, because it’s the most prone to stereotyping, is quite touching. Edmund’s spindly movements are calibrated and formalized with great nuance: Here is a self-imposed shut-in totally adrift in the outside world. Florence, by her own steadfast example, brings him into the open, and the courageousness of his effort is a testament not only to his love of books but, finally, to his love for her. Grade: B+ (Rated PG for some thematic elements, language, and brief smoking.)

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to ‘The Bookshop’ evokes nostalgia for all things literary
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today