UK Release Date: 29th June 2018
Runtime: 113 minutes
Director: Isabel Coixet
Writer: Isabel Coixet
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson, Honor Kneafsey, James Lance, Harvey Bennett
Synopsis: A woman achieves her dream of opening a bookshop in a seaside town that roundly rejects literature, with only an ageing recluse seeing the wisdom of her business.
“Understanding makes the mind lazy,” says Bill Nighy‘s literature-loving social recluse in The Bookshop, in a statement that might as well be aimed directly at the baffled audience. This adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize nominated novel, from Spanish director Isabel Coixet, is a strange twist on the idea of a quaint British drama, bringing a sinister veneer of off-kilter darkness that transforms the movie into something altogether different. It’s a movie that constantly feels uncomfortable and unusual, but it’s that which makes it compelling in its own bizarre way.
The plot is fairly simple, on the face of it. Idealistic widow Florence (Emily Mortimer) moves to a tiny Suffolk coastal town, with the aim of opening a bookshop for the locals, who seldom read anything longer than a newspaper article. She selects the derelict, damp Old House as a location and presses ahead with her venture, infuriating posh resident Violet (Patricia Clarkson), who had pie in the sky plans for an arts centre at the site. Dividing the community, Florence receives support from isolated pensioner Mr Brundish (Nighy) – a man renowned for preferring books to people.
Such is Brundish’s commitment to misanthropy that he is seen in an early sequence brutally tearing the back covers from his books in order to burn the authors’ photos, convincing himself these stories were not crafted by human beings. Nighy’s performance is the best in The Bookshop, delivering voiceovers with curmudgeonly gravitas. He’s also, in true Nighy fashion, terrific when wrapping his tongue delightfully around some of his more combative dialogue, including in a heavyweight clash with Clarkson, brilliant once again after stealing the show in The Party last year.
In that context, it would be easy for Mortimer to disappear, but she never does. Her Florence is driven and bold, bravely selling Lolita out of service to its literary quality, when even her window display promoting it causes a local outcry. She forms a tender relationship with a young girl in search of a job – Honor Kneafsey, making a witty impression – and bats away the smarmy advances of James Lance‘s slimy social climber – a skin-crawling role that feels transported into this cosy drama from the world of Hitchcockian thrillers
But The Bookshop never quite delivers on Coixet’s enigmatic weirdness. The movie always feels as if it’s about to take a left turn into some sort of madness, like it’s a rollercoaster reaching the summit of its initial ascent, preparing to plummet into the unknown. It’s this palpable sense of the bizarre that ensures the movie remains intriguing, but it also sets up expectations for something that’s rather more dramatic than the way the story ultimately unfolds. By the end, The Bookshop is just a little too ordinary.
Pop or Poop?
The Bookshop is an easy movie to explain, but it’s a unique one to experience. Everything about it suggests a very normal British drama, whereas the end result has a pervasive sense of off-kilter strangeness, as if the movie is taking place within The Truman Show rather than on the Suffolk coast. Nighy, Mortimer and Clarkson find plenty of room to shine, though, even as the narrative eventually disappoints.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.