Isabel Coixet adapts The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel of the same name, in her latest Goya award-winning film.
Coixet crafts an interesting film, one that curiously marshals satisfaction and frustration. Despite its predictability, it remains ambitious in its scope, and touches on subjects that feel both timely and important.
It’s 1959. The location, a nondescript British coastal town, dreary, stiflingly small and populated by narrow-minded, conservative townsfolk. Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a middle-aged widower whose husband was killed in the war, sets about establishing a small business in a disused property that comes in the form of a bookshop.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), an influential woman about town, catches wind of Florence’s ambitions. She has designs on the property herself, wishing to turn it into an art centre, and so sets about to scupper Florence’s plans.
Coixet introduces interesting ideas that clearly stem from the current climate in Catalonia where anti-independents feel silenced by a louder pro-independence counterpart. Here, however, it is played out in broader strokes with evil personified in the manipulative, elitist Mrs. Garmart, who acts purely out of self-interest.
Running through the middle of the film is a touching, but undercook subplot. Florence strikes up a tender relationship with the town recluse and assumed curmudgeon, Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy), when he begins corresponding with her. A keen book lover, he asks for books to be sent over to his removed estate. Slowly, the relationship between the two develops, and when Florence seeks out Brundish’s advice as to whether she should sell the controversial novel Lolita, she is invited round to his house.
Bill Nighy shines in his performance, managing to distil behind his eyes the quiet soul of a lonely man left in some way wanting. The screen time shared between Mortimer and Nighy is where the film feels strongest. The subtleness of their relationship and the growing affection for one another handled elegantly.
However, clunky exposition-heavy dialogue and pacing mar the film. And, sadly, it can never quite shake its extended episode, TV-movie quality. Consequently, the whole thing feels very small, but inflated through Coixet’s insistence on exceedingly long scenes and an overbearingly dramatic score which lend the film an air of self-importance and grandeur that’s hard to get behind.