Movie Review – The Bookshop (2017)
Directed by Isabel Coixet.
Starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson, Honor Kneafsey, and James Lance.
Florence Green decides to open a bookshop in the small coastal town of Hardborough. But she finds herself up against powerful opposition in wealthy Mrs Gamert, who has her own ideas on how the shop should be used. And will stop at nothing to get her own way.
Hands up who’s had that feeling of being an outsider, not fitting in with the group or crowd who seem to make things happen. At the very least, it’s awkward, but it’s often more unpleasant and painful than that. It’s exactly what happens to the widowed Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) in the small English seaside town of Hardborough in 1959, when she decides to set up her own business, a bookshop. And swiftly finds herself confronted by small town attitudes, not so much because of what she’s selling but because the nearest thing the town has to a lady of the manor, the wealthy Mrs Gamert (Patricia Clarkson), has designs on the same property. She wants to establish an arts centre and no little bookshop is going to stop her.
At first sight, this looks like a British Chocolat, but with books. The townsfolk are introduced to adventurous titles such Lolita and Fahrenheit 451 but, to the film’s credit, it eschews the predictable moral outrage route and goes for something more subtle, with good old fashioned snobbery as its target. Mrs Gamert concentrates on political means to oust her rival, her measured, soft tones being nothing more than a front for somebody who will have their own way at any cost. Florence, however, does have an unlikely ally, Mr Brunish (Bill Nighy), a recluse living alone in a mansion which recalls the spirit of Satis House, the home of Great Expectations‘ Miss Havisham. Through Florence, he discovers the works of Ray Bradbury and even goes head to head with Mrs G to plead her case.
So a film, appropriately enough, inspired by literature. But let’s pause for a moment and play a game. You know the one. How long does it take you to work out the ending? If you’re watching something with Paul Haggis’s stamp on it, you know that somewhere along the line he’ll give you an industrial sized pointer. Million Dollar Baby, we’re looking at you. And it ruins things. To be fair, he usually waits to around about the halfway point, but not so The Bookshop. The giveaway comes in the first half hour so you spend the rest of the film waiting to see if you’re right. And there’s precious little satisfaction in discovering you are.
Which means the film is on a hiding to nothing. Even Bill Nighy – who steals every scene he’s in (and there’s not enough of them) – can’t quite save it. Whenever the storyline starts to sag – which it does regularly – and you start wishing he was on the screen, back he comes with his gangly walk, ready to deliver another pearl of wisdom with a slice of irony on the side. But this time, he’s not playing it for laughs: he gives Brunish a genuine pathos and it’s a beautifully understated piece of acting. Mortimer is spirited and sensitive as Florence, and Clarkson elevates her character into something more than just a boo-hiss villain, although the same can’t be said for her English accent. The fact that the three of them are so good highlights the shortcomings of James Lance as the local cad who hams it up so much that it’s like watching a young Frankie Howerd, but without the obvious toupee.
You can’t judge a book by its cover and you can’t judge The Bookshop that way either. Adapting a best seller and giving it a classy line-up all point towards something highly watchable but, when the pace is this slow, the tone this flat and the ending so horribly predictable, that empty feeling of disappointment is unavoidable. At best, you’ll be underwhelmed.