‘The Bookshop’ Is a Heartbreaking Sonnet of a Movie

Emily Mortimer plays a dedicated bookworm in this literary character study.

Poor Florence Green. The lonely widow (played with palpable reticence by Emily Mortimer), living in a small coastal English town circa 1959, needs something to occupy her mind, as an alternative to roaming the shoreline and reading poetry. So, she decides to open The Bookshop.

Before proceeding, however, Florence asks around. Anybody here interested in literature? Mr. Raven the fisherman (Michael Fitzgerald) demurs: “Books leave me exhausted. Real life is enough for me.” The banker, a “grandiloquent, patronizing” man (in the words of the voiceover narrator) played by Hunter Tremayne, is not impressed with Florence’s business plan. How about Milo North (James Lance), the town’s most eligible squire? He’s too busy flouncing around with his BBC pals to care. Most disheartening of all, Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), the controlling, meddling wife of the local general, haughtily declares that Florence is mistaken — the old house the widow wants to turn into a book store is destined to be the new cultural arts center. So cancel your ambitions.

The only two people on Florence’s side are a schoolgirl named Christine (Honor Kneafsey), who’s looking forward to some part-time income as Florence’s assistant, and Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), the distinguished but reclusive old gentleman who’s in the habit of tearing out the pictures of authors from his books because they annoy him. Florence goes ahead and opens the shop anyway, and despite the fact that the roof leaks the townsfolk do come and buy her books: John Milton, poet Philip Larkin, Ray Bradbury, Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, and the era’s most scandalous bestseller, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. But Mrs. Gamart is determined to get her way.

Even at the end of August, the graveyard season for unloved movies, a literary character study like The Bookshop is the rarest of doomed species. If ordinary everyday customers in 1959 were not thrilled about curling up with a good book, now, in the electronic age, the plight of a dreamy bibliophile like Florence Green is even more pathetically hopeless.

As adapted by writer-director Isabel Coixet (she made the collegiate sex drama Elegy with Ben Kingsley) from a novel by English author Penelope Fitzgerald (The Blue Flower), the story reeks of unrequited love for the written word. It’s a tremendously discouraging drama, a mournful sonnet of a film, but with a bookish silver lining, as depicted in Florence’s Victorian-cluttered bedroom, where she lies awake in the night, reading by a soft light. She’s the keeper of the flame, happily opening the shipping crates, caressing the bindings, carefully stacking the volumes, and passing the knowledge on to little Christine.

Clarkson and Nighy turn in their usual carefully thought-out performances — the former as a patrician who delights in breaking the naive butterfly Florence on the wheel of the official “kulcha” apparatus, the latter as a disappointed fellow romantic (“Understanding makes the mind lazy”), too old to properly connect with his obvious kindred spirit.
But it’s Mortimer’s obstinate, headstrong, heartbroken Florence we care about, because she’s the only one in town who possesses the inner life of a dedicated bookworm. The romance in The Bookshop is the solitary one of characters lost in their thoughts, with no one riding to the rescue. We keep expecting her to turn the page and discover a way out of the little seaside town where no one quite gets her. And maybe she does after all.

The Bookshop
Directed by Isabel Coixet. With Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson. Now playing.
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