There’s a brief moment that occurs early in Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s new English drama The Bookshop that every book lover will appreciate. While seated on the floor, going through her inventory, widower Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) holds a distinctive looking dark green, leather-bound novel in her hands. She pauses, opens the book, brings it close to her face, and breathes in the aroma of its aged mustiness. The distinct, pleasing smell brings a smile to her face as she closes her eyes and savors the odor.
Based on a slim 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, an author whose early novels were loosely inspired by her own experiences, The Bookshop, set in 1959, tells of Florence, a middle-aged woman who moves to the fictional English coastal town of Hardborough in Suffolk, a place where we’re told in a voice-over narration, “All four seasons could be present in a single day.”
Recently widowed, Florence decides to live her dream. She buys an old, long abandoned piece of property in the middle of the village, referred to by the locals as simply Old House, and turns it into a bookshop. Florence clearly has a passion for books. “She had a great heart,” the narrator informs us, voiced by Julie Christie, adding later, “Not for one moment did she think of the consequences her modest act of inhabiting Old House would bring upon her.”
Florence’s unexpected problems come in the shape of the town’s wealthy and influential matriarch, Mrs. Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson; impeccable English accent). Mrs. Gamart, obsequious in nature, tight-lipped smiles in appearance, has wanted to turn Old House into a village arts center. She just hasn’t got around to it. But when it’s discovered that Florence has already bought the long, neglected building, Mrs. Gamart is less than pleased. As her husband reminds her, “You’ve been in London a great deal lately. You haven’t been able to control everything.”
Faithful to Fitzgerald’s novel, the conflicts Florence faces in the coastal village includes not only Mrs. Gamart’s determination to get what she wants, but also the damaging and uninformed gossip of the locals, the unfair power of attorneys, and Mrs. Gamart’s nephew, a Member of Parliament in London willing to shape a bill that would give the local village council the authority to secure a historical building left uninhabited for five years. Before Florence bought her shop, Old House was uninhabited for seven years, qualifying it for compulsorily purchase, regardless of its current owner.
The most interesting scenes involve Florence’s two supporters; Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy), the man who loves to read while living a self imposed, lonely existence at the large house at the top of the hill, a place from which he rarely emerges, and a young girl, Christine (Honor Kneafsey) who helps in the shop after school hours.
In the case of Mr. Brundish, his isolation from everything and everyone is due to the behavior and attitudes of those like Mrs. Gamart. “People like Violet Gamart made me what I am,” he tells Florence, adding at a later meeting that it’s Florence and her courage that makes him believe once more in things. “I would very much liked to have met you at another time in my life,” he admits to the bookshop owner.
As for Christine, there’s an unexpected pleasure to be had observing the schoolgirl as she slowly begins to share Florence’s love of books. In a story where tempers rarely surface, emotions are bottled, and actions are left unexpressed, it’s finally the young girl from a poor village family who ultimately performs the film’s most satisfying act.
Told at a deliberately slow, tepid pace, with a score from Alfonso Vilallonga that seems not so much to add atmosphere but actually slows the film down, The Bookshop is often in danger of appearing to grind to a halt, particularly when it takes almost two hours to tell its slight tale. The ill will Florence experiences simply because she has opened a bookshop in town doesn’t quite engage on the screen with the kind of conflicts or drama that Fitzgerald’s book managed to convey, despite how closely director/writer Coixet has adapted the work. Plus, while Florence may experience a push back from the town once she fills the shop window display with copies of Nabakov’s Lolita, the subject matter of the controversial novel is never discussed. For a town portrayed as remaining largely uninformed with a population that rarely reads, one wonders what it is the villagers think they know about the novel.
However, what helps keeps the film buoyant are the performances of the English cast, particularly Emily Mortimer. The more we’re in her company, the more it’s easy to understand why a recluse like Mr. Brundish would silently wish he had known her before, when he was younger. The hint of a romance is surprisingly touching.
Tastefully presented with beautiful, widescreen cinematography by Jean-Claude Larrieu, what ultimately engages in The Bookshop more than the narrative is the film’s scenic design and its attention to detail. Books of the period are presented with the authentic look and jacket covers of the time in which they were originally published, the late fifties. Though it’s possible that some observant book lovers may notice one interesting error. In that early scene where Florence opens a classic, leather-bound novel and delights in the musty odor of its pages, the cover of the book she’s holding is of a specific design created for the centennial edition of the complete works of Charles Dickens. The series was actually published in the late sixties. It’s doubtful Florence’s inventory would possess books yet to be published.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 113 Minutes