Monday 2 August 2021

Movie Review: The Bookshop (2017)

A low-key drama, The Bookshop tries for subtle quirkiness, but succumbs to triteness despite a willing cast.

The setting is the late 1950s in the small English seaside village of Hardborough. Widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) lost her husband during the war. Now she moves back into her matrimonial home, a heritage building known as Old House, and turns it into the town's first bookshop. She immediately runs afoul of the wealthy Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), who had plans to buy Old House and convert it into an arts centre.

Young Christine (Honor Kneafsey) becomes Florence's helper at the bookshop, and learns to love books. The town's wealthy recluse Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy) develops a friendship with Florence, initially through correspondence and later in person. She introduces him to the books of Ray Bradbury and he helps her navigate the controversy surrounding the scandalous new book Lolita. But Violet is determined to shut Florence down, and has an ally in good-for-nothing James Lance (Milo North), a small-time media personality.

Based on the book by Penelope Fitzgerald and directed by Isabel Coixet, The Bookshop establishes a scenic milieu of a small but rugged and windswept English waterfront community. While the place looks appealing, the people are much less engaging, an insurmountable fault in what is supposed to be a character-driven drama. 

Not even lead protagonist Florence Green is elevated much beyond the broadest definition of a war widow, vague dreamy flashbacks to a happy married life falling well short despite Emily Mortimer's animated efforts. The rest of the Hardborough residents fare worse. Violet is evil because she is evil (or maybe just because she is wealthy), Mr. Brundish is a misunderstood recluse because, well, he never talks to anyone and never leaves his house. Lance is a slime-ball because he has connections with the big city.

The core conflict between opening a bookshop and creating an arts centre creates a misguided culture-versus-culture skirmish that could have been resolved over a civilised cup of tea (perhaps a bookstore as part of the arts centre?). The rest of the core message about the value of books is too broad. The slow pacing deadens any momentum, and at 112 minutes the film is a good 20 minutes longer than the content can support. The narration is unnecessary, but does contribute to a decent denouement that avoids the easy way out.

The Bookshop is charming on the outside, but dull where it matters.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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