by Toby Woollaston
On my way to work, I saw a young student walking along the footpath, open book in one hand, a half-eaten apple in the other, lost in what must’ve been a good read. It was a nostalgic moment and a sight so seldom seen nowadays. Perhaps it is no surprise then, that The Bookshop gave me that same feeling; it is, after all a film that celebrates bibliophilia and deals in the currency of nostalgia.
Based on the novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop is set in 1959 and tells the tale of Florence Green (Emily Mortimer). She is an earnest but plucky young widower whose decision to open a bookstore in the English township of Hardborough ruffles a few feathers—most notably, the town’s toffee-nosed aristocrat Violet Garmart (a role that is deliciously rendered by the wonderful Patricia Clarkson). Her plans to scupper Florence’s venture supplies the film its narrative focus. It’s not a particularly complex story, but the devil is in the detail and Florence’s belligerence in the face of a town’s rejection personifies the film’s investigation of courage in the face of classism.
Bill Nighy turns in a typically screen-steeling performance as Florence’s confidant and ally, Edmund Brundish. But even his quirky style as the knight in shining grey-hair provides little relief from the film’s surprisingly bleak tone. Yes, The Bookshop is slightly more sombre than expected, but thankfully it avoids the temptation to pander to today’s voracious appetite for feel-good twee and whimsy.
Isobel Coixet, who both directed and adapted Fitzgerald’s book, has done and good job of creating a great deal of atmosphere and drawn out some wonderful performances from her top-draw cast.
The film does, however, have a few minor problems; the editing is particularly loose in parts, and some of the supporting roles feel very stilted. But what it lacks in one chapter it makes up for in another—specifically with some beautiful sound design and notable cinematography. The Bookshop is certainly no page-turner, but it remains engaging enough to be worth seeing.
See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.