Set in a Norfolk coastal town in the 1950s, The Bookshop follows the trials, tribulations and joys of middle-aged war widow, Florence Green (Emily Mortimer). When Florence, a relative newcomer to the town, decides to go ahead with her plans to open a bookshop, ignoring opposition from Mrs Gamut (Patricia Clarkson), a local upper-class socialite and political influencer, she learns that courage and a love of books is sometimes no match for the class snobbery and the ostensibly polite, but cruel, conservatism of a small English town.
Adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker-shortlisted novel of the same title, Isabel Coixet makes good use of Fitzgerald’s clever prose and keen eye but ultimately isn’t quite able to convincingly pull off the pettiness of class tensions of 1950s England. This is not perhaps the fault of the Spanish-British-German co-production, as other reviewers have suggested, but may come from the unevenness of tone and an unwillingness to look the cruelty of small town life straight in the face. A good example of this is a thoroughly underused Patricia Clarkson, who, although looking the part, is constrained by a script which doesn’t allow her character to come to life and embrace the true complexity, and complicity, of Violet Gamut. Instead she becomes a mere caricature of cruelty, too obvious an enemy, and as a result the film fails to explore the true nature of the clash between Gamut and Florence, which is not a straight good versus evil tale, but instead represents the battle to maintain the recognised social order in the face of change.
The most convincing scenes are the ones between Florence and Mr Brundish (Bill Nighy), a prickly upper-class recluse who becomes an unlikely ally of Florence and her bookshop. Coixet allows Florence and Mr Brundish the space to interact in a less postured manner than the other characters are permitted and Nighy and Mortimer have fun with the developing friendship, with most of the film’s laughs coming from their interactions.
Perhaps it is the all too cosy ending that finally pushes the film into territory which betrays the original material. However, the final scene and reveal will please booklovers everywhere, and provides a rare cinematic opportunity for bibliophiles to revel in the pure beauty of a well-stocked bookshop.
The Bookshop was out on general release from 2nd March 2018.