Director: Isabel Coixet
Screenwriters: Isabel Coixet based on the eponymous novel by Penelope Fitzgerald
Runtime: 113 mins.
Australian release date: 24 May 2018
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 9 May 2018
Set in the sleepy seaside town of Hardborough in Norfolk, England, in 1959, The Bookshop has been recreated from the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald and brought to the screen by the Catalan director Isabel Coixet. It deals with the power of class and politics that existed in British society of the period, a time when people hid behind their emotions with polite rigidness, despite what they were really thinking. It was not long before The Beatles and their attendant generation burst free from the chains of the ‘50s; a time when a new progressiveness was starting to clash against old world conservatism.
Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) is a young widow who opens a bookshop in an attempt to put her grief behind her and to engage in something close to her and her deceased husband’s heart. By doing so, she exposes the narrow-mindedness of the townspeople, particularly when she introduces them to some of the more provocative works of the time; Nabokov’s Lolita and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 were examples of the calibre of the novels that were deemed scandalous when they were published.
Unbeknown to Florence, the shop had been earmarked for an arts centre by the calculating and formidable Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), doyenne of Hardborough society. She does not want or support the new bookshop and goes out of her way to make life extremely difficult for Florence. The young woman’s ally is the indomitable Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), who welcomes the arrival of this cultural breath-of-fresh-air into the town’s stuffy, insular and archaic atmosphere. He becomes not only Florence’s best customer but also her closest ally in the struggle to keep her business afloat and he attempts to thwart the negative behaviour of the local shopkeepers, who also resent the newcomer. Florence employs a young shop assistant, Christine (Honor Kneafsey), who is helpful but is not really interested in books and is befriended by the creepy Milo North (James Lance), whose actions are thoroughly questionable, so Brundish is her sole support.
Clarkson nails the behaviour of a consummate psychopath. She wears a mask that is impenetrable, showing no emotion, just a manifest sense of entitlement. She takes ‘no’ as a personal insult and manipulates the locals around her in an attempt to create her very own fiefdom. She is a woman determined, at any cost, to achieve her aim, without any consideration for Florence’s well-being or financial and emotional survival. Florence, however, shows how determined she is to survive against all the odds and is almost invigorated by her counterpart’s underhand actions. Nighy revels in his usual ‘Nighyishness’ and portrays Brundish as dignified and compelling. His character has some wonderful, sage advice that is affirming in the face of adversity. Young Honor Kneafsey almost manages to steal the show as the feisty, enigmatic Christine. Emily Mortimer is utterly charming as the guileless, but far from naïve, Florence. She’s the rose to Gamart’s thorns. Director Coixet’s script of Fitzgerald’s novel will surprise many. Just when you think you’ve travelled this country lane before, the film takes a turn onto an unfamiliar path and enters some dark territory.
The actual countryside is beautifully captured by Jean-Claude Larrieu’s cinematography; parts of Northern Ireland and Catalonia fill in for 1959 Norfolk. If there’s a fault it’s in Alfonso de Vilallonga’s score. While sweet in parts, it tends to become overly saccharine after a while and signals too heavily its intentions. The Bookshop captures the injustice perpetuated in society by those who believe they have the right to bully and who hold utter disregard for others. This very universal tale shows that there are no winners in this small world and it presents a sobering insight into the human condition.