30 May 2018

Review - The Bookshop

From At The Movies, 7:32 pm on 30 May 2018

The setting and the cast of The Bookshop are enough to attract interest - who doesn’t like Bill Nighy and Emily Mortimer? Simon Morris looks at whether it delivers.

The novel of the same name, by Penelope Fitzgerald, was well-received by the critics in the 1970s. The belated film version, adapted by Catalan director Isabel Coixet, stars art-house favourite Emily Mortimer.

Mortimer starts off well as young war-widow Florence Greene who opens a bookshop in one of those English villages we associate with cosy TV murder-mysteries.

She falls foul of the local aristocrat, Mrs Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) but the problem is we’re given no convincing reason why Mrs Gamart is so down on the idea of a bookshop.

We’re told she has a hankering for a village art centre, but why – and indeed what a “village art centre” could be in 1958 – remain a mystery.

Nevertheless Florence stands firm and launches her bookshop with some half-hearted assistance from some half-heartedly played villagers. 

She gains support from an eccentric chap called Mr Brundish, played by the always welcome Bill Nighy.

Since most of the audience for a film like The Bookshop have been lured in on the promise of Bill Nighy taking a major part in the proceedings, it’s only fair to warn that he’s mostly there as colourful backup.

In fact more is made of Mr Brundish’s interest in sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury than in his anticipated interest in Florence.

Eventually a relationship of sorts develops between them, while the sinister Mrs Gamart continues to plot in the background for reasons of her own.

Not only are Mrs Gamart’s motives unexplained as she sets out to scuttle Florence’s bookshop, so are everyone else’s, even Florence’s.

There may have been more to the story in Penelope Fitzgerald’s original book, but I suspect its appeal was mostly down to how she told it.  And good writing is the hardest thing to translate into good film-making.

The stellar three lead actors do their considerable best, with very little support by the script or the director.

You wonder what might have been made of The Bookshop by a better director, but the fact that nobody has attempted it in over 40 years leads you to suspect it was always an entirely literary endeavour.