I’ll be honest, it was slim pickings this week. With absolutely no desire to see the Emily Blunt-less, Denis Villeneue-less, Roger Deakins-less Sicario 2: Soldado, pretty much all that was left was The Bookshop, an assuming little internationally co-produced adaptation of a 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. With the World Cup and Wimbledon taking up the majority of my attention, this one seemed like the kind of straight forward, well cast period piece that would make for the perfect interlude in between games of various natures.
Set in 1959, the film tells the story of Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a middle aged widow who moves to a small British coastal town with the ambition of opening a bookshop on the site of an old, abandoned house. Though most of the villagers welcome Florence’s bookshop, local socialite Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) has other plans for the building, and sets about trying to run Florence’s business. The newcomer, however, finds an unlikely ally in the form of Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), inhabitant of the mysterious house on the top of the hill, and fellow literature lover.
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is something really strange about this film, and not in a good way. The narrative seems to flow along as a series of individual set pieces that don’t ever really amount to much. One particular segment in which Florence weighs up the decision of whether or not to stock Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita feels like it is going to pave the way for a central ethical tension between the outsider with the ‘dirty book’ and the innocent locals, but this, along with pretty much everything else that shows a glimmer of intrigue or promise, is quickly forgotten in favour of a different direction.
And that main direction is a never fully explained, extremely forced feeling triangle of drama between Florence, the protestations and machinations of Violet, and an, honestly rather baffling, romantic connection between the bookshop owner and the mysterious, MUCH older Mr. Brundish. The audience never really gets a feel for exactly why Violet is being so destructive, and equally we are encouraged to believe that Florence and Edmund can fall for one another in a deep and meaningful way after a single, awkward afternoon tea. There is something about The Bookshop that feels undercooked, like there was a interesting story waiting to be told, but the execution and decisions to focus on underwhelming sections of the narrative leaves it feeling like a rather boring watch. I can’t say for sure, but perhaps the filmmakers have gone too far in trying to stay true to the original book? It very much feels like the story being told on screen would benefit from many more words and chapters.
Ultimately, it’s not offensively bad and it’s not pleasingly good, it’s very firmly somewhere in the middle. A Rotten Tomatoes score of just over 50% is testament to that. What I will say is that if you are bibliophile, much of the period bookshop imagery and literature centric dialogue will certainly provide you with a level of satisfaction.
As Florence, Emily Mortimer gives a very measured, delicate performance. The character is a Second World War widow with an amiable, loving personality, but also one who is refuses to back down in the face of adversity, and on the whole Mortimer succeeds in showing these two sides authentically. There isn’t any particular moment where she blows you away, but it’s nice to have a solid actress of her calibre sailing the ship.
As Edmund Brundish, Bill Nighy gives us one of his shyer, more reserved performances, although some of his signature style still remains. It feels a little bit like the importance of his character is somewhat diminished by the speed at which his storyline is forced to develop, and I have to say that I never felt the chemistry between his character and Mortimer’s that the filmmakers were obviously going for. It’s by no means an alarming age difference, but forties to late sixties is a big ask when you are only giving an audience a single scene in which to light a fire.
Arguably the biggest element of the film that didn’t work for me was Patricia Clarkson as Violet Gamart. I have loved Clarkson in several projects before, but here she is giving the most pantomimic, turned to eleven British bitch socialite I’ve seen in a while. From the overly comical accent to the forced side eyes glances and everything in between, I neither buy the intentions of the character or the portrayal of the character itself. There are more than a few occasions where Clarkson’s presence in the film makes it almost feel like a parody.
Overall, The Bookshop did exactly what I had thought it would, it provided me a touch of cinematic escape in the midst of this sporting summer that is really starting to reach fever pitch. Unfortunately, an endearing central performance by Mortimer and a couple of interesting literary references are not quite enough to save this from being anything other than odd and frankly a bit dull. For a film based on a novel, set in a bookshop, it’s certainly no page turner.