The Bookshop is an adaptation of a novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, directed by Isabel Coixet and starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson. The story settles in a small East Anglian town in 1959, where Florence Green decides to fulfil her dream of opening a bookshop, in spite of polite yet ruthless opposition.
Detailing with a widower’s dream to open a book store, the film explores the uphill battle she experiences in trying to affect her dream against the wishes of a high-powered nemesis and apathetic society. While taking place in a small town, the themes are universal, speaking to the ideals of the American Dream. Sometimes pursuing your dream can be fraught with obstacles, sometimes people push through the challenges and still find their dream unfulfilled.
The Bookshop has similarities with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Doc Marten. Both elegant British female-led period pieces within a decade of each other, hinging on a newcomer and centring on a love for books, the two coming-of-age dramas have a shared affinity and quality. Although, The Bookshop is more constrained much like the sometimes prickly small town situational comedy of Doc Marten, who is also an outsider trying to set up shop.
Generously directed by Isabel Coixet, Fitzgerald’s story has personal significance. Being a female director, she will have special insights into what it’s like trying to forge ahead in trying situations and a male-dominated industry. An accomplished director, Coixet knows how to treat her cast like gold, encouraging them to enter the creative space for richer contributions and enabling more investment in the film-making process. This shows, making for a rich and layered film experience, thanks to solid performances from Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson.
“I do get the impression that someone’s watching me…”
Mortimer is always convincing, embodying the role of Florence Green, seizing courage and rugged determination under trying circumstances. Feeling at odds with a town in the pocket of a wealthy socialite, her noble efforts to introduce a bookshop are met with mixed responses. Nighy is more restrained and stoic, only offering glimpses of his trademark wink-wink charm as a wealthy hermit and avid book reader as Edmund Brundish. While Patricia Clarkson’s ability to play nice villains makes her performance detestable, fashionable and well-balanced.
Elegant production design and detailed wardrobe set the scene for a finely textured and manicured late ’50s period piece. A meticulously crafted bookshop and thoughtful wardrobe touches add layers to the visuals. While quite exquisite to behold with rich cinematography capturing natural vistas and decorative interiors, The Bookshop has a stilted feel at times. While slow-moving in an old world amble, the drama is peppered with powerful and deeply honest moments, which range from magical to explosive.
Unfortunately, while layered and exquisite, a final flourish leaves the story on a rather unexpected and unsatisfying ending, which at almost 2 hours seems sudden and disconnected. Returning to a narrative bookend device after settling into Green’s heroic journey, it’s a rather jarring and clunky turn to an elegant drama. While you can connect the dots and assemble the director’s intentions, the rushed resolution undoes much of the carefully calibrated tone and storytelling that comes before. The production, themes and characters of The Bookshop are compelling, admirable and well-acted enough to keep you invested. Yet, the film’s stilted dialogue and one, two, skip a few ending raise a number of question marks.
The bottom line: Intriguing