The Bookshop, a bittersweet, fragile drama set in 1959 England based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, centers on Florence Green (the always great Emily Mortimer), a widow who has spent months arranging to open the first bookshop in a coastal community. On the eve of her opening, she is informed by the most influential woman in town, Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) that she’d rather see the long-empty historic building become an arts center where guest lecturers and various exhibits might be housed. It’s not that there aren’t other vacant properties in the area, but apparently once Gamart sets her mind to something, not getting it would seem like an affront to common decency.
What follows is an attempt by Gamart to passive-aggressively use her influence to destroy Florence’s business and life, since she also lives in the building and spent all of her money making both spaces livable. Before things get too heated, Florence makes a new friend in the form of a local widower, rich hermit, and fellow book enthusiast Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), who sends notes to her requesting book recommendations and is pleasantly surprised with her choices, which include works by Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) and Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita). Although he rarely leaves his home, he manages to keep tabs on local goings-on, and eventually offers his help in warding off Gamart’s attacks, which include financing another book store nearby.
Adapted and directed by Isabel Coixet (Learning to Drive, Elegy), The Bookshop is made up of a series of small moments. It’s rare that anyone raises their voice, even though there are plenty of reasons to at times. Every relationship that Florence enters into is suspect, including those with people she pays, like her lawyer and accountant, since everyone seems to be feeding Gamart information. Some of Florence’s more fascinating acquaintances are with the town playboy, Milo North (James Lance), who is flirty and broke—a dangerous combination; and a local school girl named Christine (Honor Kneafsey), who helps out around the shop after school and may be Florence’s only true friend (it turns out the film is being narrated by an adult Christine).
But it’s the shared sense of loneliness between Florence and Edmund that stirs the emotions most thoroughly in the movie. Their friendship isn’t portrayed as a potential romantic connection, but it’s clear that under different circumstances, they might have made a lovely couple whose shared love of books would have fueled a lasting bond.
The Bookshop doesn’t end the way I thought it might, and I’ll always give points to a film for surprising me. But I’m also not sure the conclusion is entirely satisfying, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since life sometimes doesn’t wrap things up conveniently either. Mortimer is in such perfect, measured control of her expressions and reactions that you could almost turn the volume off on the movie and still get a clear sense of what Florence is experiencing.
Ultimately, the film is less about a small town store and more about powerful people flexing their influence simply because they can, in the service of nothing good, just to remind everyone around them not to step out of line or cross them. Watching Clarkson (complete with a British accent) smile and pretend to be kind is chilling, because the character would fit right into in a contemporary piece set in certain parts of America as well. The Bookshop is one film on the surface and something far more sinister underneath, giving some terrific actors a marvelous showcase.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
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