A Penelope Fitzgerald novel from 1978 inspires director and screenplay writer Isabel Coixet Castillo from her Spanish roots to the eastern coast of England where village emotions are repressed and class warfare is a chess game of strategies.
“The Bookshop” has a simple plot, beautiful cinematography, eccentric characters, and a “them against us” filmed screed. Throw in unrequited romance and a literary backdrop and Masterpiece Theater vibes reverberate. Most will be entranced.
Emily Mortimer is Florence Green, the widow of a serviceman and a mentor to the young teen, Christine ( Honor Kneafsey). Christine is the voiceover narrator, who is as spunky as Florence is persistent. Our time frame is 1959.
Conflict over opening the first bookstore in the village emanates from the aristocratic and controlling Violet Gamart, played dragon-like by Patricia Clarkson. Her very breath fires up trouble of every sort for Florence, who is not intimidated by wealth, power, or political position.
Florence and her late husband met working in a bookshop. Her husband used to read her poetry, and the Victorian line “never give a lady a restive horse” made them laugh. Victorian etiquette aside, the tea cosy, the Liberty of London prints, the risqué cards, the Nescafé, the feather dusters, the cigarette holder, and fruitcake and milk-laden tea, all make us smile as well.
Sweet scenes of “sea scouts” helping Florence build bookshelves show her mixing into the village community. Florence has a first customer, and gossip flows. The lonely and mysterious Mr. Edmund Brundish , a standout in Bill Nighy’s already brilliant repertoire, is another reason to see this period piece. Oscar-worthy is the buzz.
Small people in small British villages like Hardborough, Suffolk, make our heroine’s courage a virtue to love. When Nighy says, “ I would like to help you make me believe in things I thought forgotten”, we sigh. Nighy’s fist cupping, his pauses, his very breathing is impeccable.
I especially liked the montage of villagers looking out their closed windows. The nature scenes and the church blur, and the frames of Florence reading with light streaming on patterned pillows are romantically evocative. Kudos to cinematographer Jean Claude Larrieu, and to costumer designer Mercè Paloma, and to Alfonso de Vilallonga’s string score. Color, composition and score were all lovely, as was the uncredited voice over by Julie Christie.
Literature as life changing is the subtext of “The Bookshop”:Ray Bradbury’s “ Fahrenheit 451” the nightmare. “No one ever feels alone in a bookshop” is the truism. Our narrator and arson , Christine, shows us as much.