Film review: “The Bookshop” (2018)

“The Bookshop” (2018)



Written & Directed by: Isabel Coixet

Based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald

Featuring: Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Bill Nighy

From the novel:“Courage and endurance are useless if they are never tested.”

To say that this movie represents aspects of life that are from a bygone age is an understatement, it is a period piece set in the 1950s, taking place in and around a bookshop, an independent one at that, as well as making comments about government control and the fickle nature of the public. It also speaks to the rights of women; how small towns operate in regard to change as well as the social hierarchy that exists not only in small towns but in larger ones as well. “The Bookshop”(2018) is a very special film, it is mannered as well as paced in a very special way, with a spoken narrative that permeates the narrative like a low budget movie from the era when sound was expensive so narration was a must – speaking in a third person to give a point of view. However, after viewing it the entire narrative makes sense as well as reflecting a time before any real kind of technological revolution had occurred, where entertainment was found either in the cinema or on the page. I had very different emotions running through me while viewing this film, it could be said to be manipulative but in a very positive way, it speaks to the dissemination of information as well as knowledge, reflecting that knowledge can be derived from high culture as well as pop culture, something that has only magnified since the embracing of popular culture from the 1980s onwards. On top of that there are some subtle performances from the three principles, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Bill Nighy, as well as the perfectly cast supporting actors.

“The Bookshop” is adapted from a novel by writer/director Isabel Coixet, who is originally from Spain, and while she has produced movies in English before, it is not her natural language. This in some cases may be a drawback, and at times may seem like it has impacted the film, but all mannerisms and seeming odd language is all on purpose. Not only is the film looking at a society from the outside in, which in most cases means certain truths are able to be uncovered by an outsider which is both the main character as well as the writer/director. One of the larger elements that I took away from this movie was the treatment by  small town people on the protagonist of the story for some very personal reasons, those being that I had recently watched the Harry Dean Stanton film “Lucky” (2017) which deals with some of the same issues in very different ways and I have just moved to a very small town in New Zealand where already there are some similarities I can easily identify with.

The film, as the novel does, is set mainly in 1959, and centres around Florence Green, a middle-aged widow, who decides to open a bookshop in the small coastal town of Hardborough, Suffolk. The location chosen is the Old House, an abandoned, damp house said to be infested by ghosts. After many sacrifices, Florence manages to start her business, which grows for about a year after which sales slump. Mr. Brundish, the lonely and mysterious inhabitant of the house at the top of the hill, is Florence’s best client. The influential and ambitious Mrs. Gamart, wants and intends to set up an arts centre in the Old House.

There are three central but very different performances in “The Bookshop” by Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Bill Nighy, all great character actors from three different generations of actors, at least it would appear that way, but Mortimer and Clarkson are closer in age than you may first think. Personally I always find it hard to go past Nighy as the best thing about any film he appears in, here he plays the elder statesman perfectly, all ticks as well as knowing glances to Florence as well as quiet desperation. As this is a film that relies on mannerisms all three actor’s must portray most of their emotions through non-verbal acting, it is here where they all excel as their own acting experience is vast, in the hands of lessor actors this would be an inferior film indeed. The two supporting actors that rise to the challenge of the material are James Lance as a somewhat antagonist Milo North and young actress Honor Kneafsey who plays Christine a character that belies her size as well as the part she plays in the story. All told the performances in this film match the nature of the material in a way that needs to be seen to be appreciated.

“The Bookshop” is set in a time where the post war malaise has dissipated, rationing has ceased and the new intelligentsia is making a stab at cultural relevance, not only that but a woman setting up shop in a small town taking on the ruling class of the day as well as the men in the town speak volumes to the main characters ambition and of her grief wanting to relive her previous life as well as having something to remind her of happier times when she was married to the love of her life. It is no accident that two of the main authors named in the film are Ray Bradbury and Vladimir Nabokov. Bradbury was an author that came from a literary background but would ultimately be someone whose work was absorbed into the popular culture and still does with one of his novels being remade into a move this year. Nabakov to was someone who wrote the literary classic ‘Lolita’ (1955) but whose very name is a term used to this very day to describe a kind of girl. This speaks to the larger picture of high culture versus pop culture which in turn informs one of the aspects of the story where an arts centre is wanted by the upper class while a bookshop is centred on by the actual inhabitants of the small village – this is a tension that still exists in terms of cultural capital that is battled for by various groups to this day all over the world.

There is so much going on within this narrative that it could be talked about for some time, but the small town aspect is forward in my mind and plays ultimately like a horror story or sorts, or at least at times it seems that way. Ultimately the population seem to accept Florence Green’s shop but when the influential and obviously rich and well connected Mrs. Gamart decides to close her shop down almost everyone turns on Florence immediately as they are either scared of Gamart or want to appease her, this is an aspect of small town life that is not only worrisome but has been reflected in a variety of genres and time periods, one of the more extreme could be said to be “The Wicker Man” (1973). However its not all bad news with a film that could be said to be a juxtaposition to this one, and a healthy one at that in the great “Lucky”. Whilst the townsfolk in “The Bookshop” are not only fearful but sheepish the opposite is true in “Lucky” where the townsfolk are not only happy and supportive but are central to the main characters survival as well as acceptance of who he is, thereby making all of their lives richer for the experience. One wonders if the townspeople of “The Bookshop” had have behaved honourably the outcome would have been brighter as well as happier and less destructive.

Be warned this is not the happiest of stories with some fairly nasty people using as well as being used to castrate the ability of one person to bring as well as find happiness in her own and others’ lives. It paints a dark undercurrent in English life of classism which still exists and has been accentuated by racism. The fear of those involved screams of the right wing, as well as Trumpism, Brexit and any other similar movement. The story illustrates what fear can do to people if they let it in, the ‘other’ in this case is a woman as well as real culture that would transplant the way in which it was possible to reach the masses by side stepping the hegemonic forces that existed in the 1950s. I cannot recommend this film highly enough and you should seek it out in cinemas right now.

“The Bookshop” is out now only in cinemas.

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