ONE FOR THE BOOKS
Film a slow-moving, but meaningful tribute to the glories of the printed word
Come, children, and listen while I spin a tale from a time when bookstores were so entrenched, with their bricks and their mortar, that those who opposed them had to muster all the forces they could to level them, rather than just leave it to Amazon and attrition.
That’s basically the story of The Bookshop, based on the 1978 novel by Britain’s Penelope Fitzgerald, adapted and directed by Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet.
Set in a sleepy small town in coastal Suffolk circa 1959, it tells of widowed bibliophile Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), who decides to turn a dilapidated old building into a bookstore.
It’s a simple dream, but it’s not shared by Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), an elite busybody who wants the site for an arts centre. The fact that Florence gets there first is a minor impediment to a woman of Violet’s means.
Florence has an ally of sorts in Edmund Brundish, a local curmudgeon who hates people but loves reading. (An early scene seems to show him tossing books in the fire; we soon realize he’s merely burning the dust jackets with their author photos.) Played by Bill Nighy, he writes to Florence suggesting she send him whatever she thinks might tickle his fancy; his discovery and admiration of Ray Bradbury had me warming to him greatly, while cleverly adding to that bookburning theme.
Alas, he, alone is in her corner, while the rest of the townsfolk are either indifferent or against her.
And it doesn’t help that she decides to stock the shop with a novel called Lolita, after asking Mr. Brundish’s opinion. “They won’t understand it,” he assures her, “but that’s for the best. Understanding makes the mind lazy.”
The Bookshop is a slow-moving affair, but it’s worth watching its stars go through their paces. Mortimer manages to be at once brisk and halting as she pushes ahead with her business plan; when the local banker declares that he falls asleep after reading two or three pages in the evening, she tries to spin it into a positive: Books can cure insomnia!
And Nighy is well nigh perfect as Mr. Brundish, roused from his solitudinous ways to defend Florence’s bookshop, recognizing not just a source of reading material but a kindred soul in its owner. Not sure whose choice it was to give his character a slight stammer, but it’s an ideal way to humanize him.
Nighy, like his late contemporary Alan Rickman, is an actor who can imbue the most thinly written figure with enough emotional depth to bring tears to your eye.
There’s depth to the film as well, which may have you seeking out the poetry of Charles Hamilton Sorley, or Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel A High Wind in Jamaica; just two of its throwaway references. (And if you haven’t cracked open Bradbury yet, you don’t know what you’re missing.) No surprise to learn that Fitzgerald herself worked for a time in a Suffolk bookshop; the love of the printed word infuses this celluloid tale.
Emily Mortimer, left, as Florence Green is pitted against Patricia Clarkson’s character Violet Gamart in Isabel Coixet’s new movie The Bookshop.