The Bookshop is not what you might imagine. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald, one might expect a sentimental, feel-good film about the power of books to open up closed minds. That’s not what we get in writer/director Isabel Coixet’s latest film.
At the heart of the story is Florence Green (Emily Mortimer). Having recently purchased a building known colloquially as “the Old House”, she decides to open a bookshop in the space. It’s a way for her to find a level of independence, as well as rekindle a connection with her late, much beloved, husband. However, she is unprepared for the level of opposition she faces in the small seaside town of Hardborough.
The opposition is spearheaded by Mrs. Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), a woman who is used to getting what she wants, and what she wants is to turn the Old House into an arts center. On her side are several Hardborough residents who seem to oppose the bookshop only because she does.
The film starts strong. We watch as Florence overcomes the stall tactics of her solicitor, squashes rumors that she plans to buy another property for her bookshop, and successfully launches the shop of her dreams. However, before the first act concludes, the film begins to meander.
As Florence contends with obstacles she didn’t foresee, she becomes friendly with her first customer, the local eccentric, Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), and their relationship blossoms with an exchange of letters. In a scene reminiscent of The Age of Innocence, Brundish reads his first letter into the camera. It’s an unusual technique, but it helps to humanize the reclusive man. Unfortunately, not enough time or importance is given to this correspondence.
Florence’s only other ally in this world is her young assistant, Christine (Honor Kneafsey). It’s touching to watch Florence try to instill a love of books into Christine, but the connection between the two is never earned. There is little chemistry between the actors; their interactions are awkward when they should be affectionate.
For a movie with only a few characters, it still ends up feeling like too many. Minor characters are given more importance than they deserve. Major characters aren’t given time to develop meaningful relationships. Most of the characters are one-dimensional.
The lovely cinematography captures the theme of the film better than any other aspect. Hardborough appears both enchanting and foreboding. If this had been better explored through character dynamics, The Bookshop may have made a lasting impression. As it is, it’s a beautiful, but empty film.