From its title you might expect that Isabel Coixet’s adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel would be about how good reading is for you, but while the liberating power of the written word is certainly a theme of the film, the tale is really about how nasty small-town politics can be. Though set in a Suffolk coastal village in 1959, one can imagine the story transplanted almost anywhere, though the result probably wouldn’t be nearly as photogenic as the coast of Northern Ireland that serves as a stand-in (and is beautifully photographed by cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu).
The central figure is mousy war widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), who has settled in the aptly-named Hardborough and decides to purchase a decrepit property called the Old House and not only live there but transform it into a book store—a sort of tribute to her late husband, whom she met in one. The locals do not seem particularly enthused about the idea—most of them confess that they don’t read much, if at all. And one in particular seems taken aback by the idea: the town’s self-proclaimed social leader and arbiter of culture, Violent Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), who lives with her husband, a retired general (Reg Wilson), on an estate where she hosts exquisitely planned parties.
It’s when she’s invited to one of these that Florence, though feeling rather out of place, learns from Violet that she would prefer the Old House to be turned into an arts center. Surely Florence could find a more appropriate site for her shop? At the same gathering she meets Milo North (James Lance), a slickly cynical womanizer who pooh-poohs Florence’s plans and advises her to be careful. The local banker who arranges the sale of the property to her is also doubtful of the wisdom of defying Mrs. Gamart.
Florence nonetheless goes forward with her dream and opens the shop, taking on intense schoolgirl
Christine (Honor Kneafsey) as an assistant. Though most of the villagers seem uninterested in her wares—the shop always appears to be devoid of customers—she will find one avid reader in town: Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), a reclusive fellow about whom the town rumor mill has built a reputation as a heartbroken widower. Brundish avoids people but loves books, and invites her to send over some volumes she thinks worth his time. He’s particularly entranced by Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and asks her to send more of that author’s writing.
Their connection grows when Florence sends Brundish a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” asking his advice about whether she should stock it in her shop. The request leads Brundish to invite her to tea, where he gives his imprimatur to the novel while noting that the locals won’t understand it. And she orders two hundred copies. By this time, however, Mrs. Gamart has decided to use her power—enlisting a nephew with connections in London to help get Parliament to pass a law allowing local authorities to seize properties for public use, which will be employed to evict Florence. Though Brundish comes out of seclusion to plead her case, his intervention will not be enough to save Florence’s shop, and she will leave Hardborough for good.
There is much to enjoy in “The Bookshop”—the locations, of course, but also the performances of Mortimer and Nighy. In reality Mortimer may be too lovely for the recessive Florence Green, but she skillfully conceals her beauty with a guise of primness. Nighy uses his hangdog quality to advantage, conveying the physical pain that merely dealing with another human being causes Brundish. But he also delights in a series of scenes Coixet invents in which he can express the character’s haughtiness when not encumbered by human contact: he delivers the text of Brundish’s letters to Florence straight into the camera.
The two have their best moments together, though: first at that tea, and later in a scene when Brundish has left his castle and finds Florence sitting dejectedly near the sea to tell her that he will do what he can to save her shop. In these sequences there’s a hint of fragile, incipient romance that’s actually quite moving.
Unfortunately, there are also weaknesses. With her steely smile Clarkson, always perfectly coiffed and clothed by costumer Marce Paloma in a series of gossamer dresses, certainly captures the smug arrogance of Mrs. Gamart, but with an unvaryingly snakelike aura. Lance’s performance as the caddish Milo is no less one-note, if a bit more enlivening; and Wilson is such a caricature of the British military man that he might have stepped out of an Agatha Christie novel. Another Christie is represented as well: Julie, who narrates the film in the voice of a character whose identity is revealed only at the end. It’s a cute allusion to the fact that Christie was one of the stars of Truffaut’s adaptation of “Fahrenheit 451.”
The bigger problem, however, is that Coixet minimizes the larger satirical sting of Fitzgerald’s book, which didn’t take aim only at snobbish, class-conscious control freaks like the Gamarts, but at the entire town of Hardborough. It wasn’t only the people in charge who doomed Florence’s dream: it was the whole apathetic, docile community that rejected her invitation to embrace the joys of literature. There’s a suggestion of that in the emptiness of the shop (except for the crowds that congregate to see the display for “Lolita” in the front window—there’s no indication that any of them actually buy a copy), but generally speaking, most of the locals get off with only the mildest of rebukes. It’s a decision that makes the film cozier, in the fashion of so many British comedies, but undercuts the book’s more cutting viewpoint.
Still, one can’t deny the elegance of “The Bookshop,” with Marc Pou’s production design set off by Larrieu’s camerawork, Bernat Aragiones’ editing giving the tale a smooth, unhurried rhythm and Alfonso de Vilallonga contributing a supportive score. Thanks to the expert craft contributions and the delicious turns by Mortimer and Nighy, Coixet’s “Bookshop,” while not as sharp as it might have been, is still worth a visit.