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.)