If you’re not the type to romanticize books and literature, you probably won’t find The Bookshop terribly palatable. However, if you tend to get lost in the printed page, or enjoy afternoon arthouse productions, you’re in for a slow, yet rewarding burn as veteran filmmaker Isabel Coixet treats audiences to a unique literary approach with her adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 novel of the same name.
The good news is that nothing is artificial here, including the story, so by the time you stop worrying about the plot it arrives with authority, leaving an indelible inspiration of courage and rebellion. Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) is a widow standing against high society in a small town and ignores the advice of, well, pretty much everyone in order to open and maintain a simple bookshop. Quaint and decidedly damp – and opposed by nearly everyone in the East Anglia town – the film’s titular shop is targeted as a pawn in a strategic move by a wealthy fashionista (Patricia Clarkson) who leads a small town conspiracy against Green and her bookshop in order to maintain her crown of high brow influence.
In short, The Bookshop is brave. And so are the performances, among the highest caliber of the year and cannot be ignored. Cleverly designed, the ensemble cultivates a tapestry of townsfolk, friends and foes who are so nuanced and complex that the 1959-era town itself seems to breathe as its own character. Mortimer is ideal as the central character, and her thoughtful performance dramatizes a mid-twentieth century woman who refuses to see the allegorical prison around her, one so apparent to the audience an odor of tragedy wafts alongsider her story.
Patricia Clarkson, rarely seen so viscous, makes for a surprising villain, embodying the greed and pointlessness of a culture that commonly squeezes lies into manners. Noteworthy performances from Reg Wilson, Honor Kneafsey, and James Lance keep the the stars on their game, but it’s Bill Nighy (Shaun of the Dead, Valkyrie) who steals the show as Green’s improbable ally, Edmund Brundish, giving a deeply conflicted portrayal of a misanthropic old prune who rediscovers his capacity for human interaction.
Working with past collaborator Jean-Claude Larrieu, Isabel Coixet demonstrates a highly controlled method of progression here, developing a delicate cinematography built upon formalism. Images are cold and square, but warm subtly as characters find spots of tenderness through the passage of time. Additionally, art (Marc Pou), set (Rebeca Comerma), and costume (Merce Paloma) designs give credence to the era, adding simple beauty to the imagery.
Though its slow nature and meticulous attendance to insignificant detail may deter some audiences, The Bookshop is most interesting when patient, as director Coixet allows her movie to grow wrinkles and imperfections, finding something between truth and beauty in the warped wood of the bookcases, or the space of time before characters figure out what they want to say. Collectively, these blemishes help to provide a vivid slice of life of from yesteryear. While it may not be the feel good movie of the year, the movie feels good.