The Bookshop Review
Books, as Stephen King once said, are a uniquely portable magic. Bookshops, then, are magic shops; single locations that contain within them seemingly infinite ones. Stories and knowledge alike can be found there, sometimes, perhaps the best times, when you least expect it. The are warm places. It is therefore ironic that a movie called The Bookshop, should leave me so cold.
Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) has plans to open a bookshop in the small village where she has lived since the death of her husband. This is met with some opposition from the socially powerful Mrs Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) who wants Florence’s property Old House for her own endeavours, but Florence is determined to continue her dream, even when her only allies appear to be her young assistant Christine (Honor Kneafsey) and her reclusive customer Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy).
The feeling coming out of The Bookshop was one of unpleasant exasperation. This isn’t a story of British pluck in the face of adversity or a community being united over a love of literature, but rather a poor woman who has been no trouble to anyone is continually beaten down for daring to want something, and then once she is down, a few more kicks are landed for good measure. It is the plot of the original book by Penelope Fitzgerald, true, but where that works as a low-key tragedy of powerlessness against outside forces and the dichotomy between the upper class and most outwardly “cultured” Mrs Gamart (and her desire to turn Old House into an art centre) and her smarmy lackey Milo North (who works at the BBC) being the ones with the least in the way of moral substance. The film is just a parade of misfortune within an overwrought melodrama punctuated by painfully awkward pauses. Also, the book has a ghost in it, which probably would have made the film far too interesting. The film, which was adapted by director Isabel Croixet, uses a lot of dialogue verbatim from the book, but without Fitzgerald’s prose to frame it the effect of the words is lost. There’s just no joy to be found here, for people or even for reading, although there are attempts to express the latter that are dropped as the film goes on.
In terms of the technical there is little fault to be found in the film, it looks wonderful with Portaferry in Northern Ireland standing in for the Suffolk coast and the gorgeous 1950s dresses that any fashion aficionado will gush over. The cast do the best they can with what they have. Emily Mortimer is a likeable screen presence, but the problem is that Florence as a character does not come across very well. She is too trusting and open, and whilst we are repeatedly told of her courage all we see is a pitiable pushover and showing rather than telling is what is key in a film. Bill Nighy is fine, stalwart of the British film industry that he is, but his character goes from being ambiguously altruistic in the book to simply silently battling with romantic feelings for Florence, because apparently a man and woman can’t connect and want to do something for each other without that. Patricia Clarkson, at least, is the clearest and most straightforward as the contemptible Mrs Gamart, used to getting her own way and willing to destroy any person who stands in her way.
There isn’t really an ending to the story as much as the film just stops. Croixet attempts to soften the final blow, but what was attempted as a bittersweet moral victory ends up being very insincere. Things would have been better off left as they are in the book or by going for something radically different, perhaps adding some more concrete retribution against Florence’s tormentors; both those who actively work against her and those who are guilty by the inaction of not supporting her. The Bookshop has moments but lacks the substance of its source material and ends up being unpleasant and unsatisfying. Curl up with a good book instead.