Written and Directed by Isabel Coixet
Starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighyand Patricia Clarkson
Running time: 1 hour and 53 minutes
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, language, and brief smoking
by Deborah Krieger
The Bookshop is a lovely-looking film, but that’s really all there is to recommend it. I’m not familiar with the acclaimed novel upon which this adaptation is based, but the experience of watching The Bookshop is like taking in a version of Chocolat without any of the latter film’s vitality, emotion, or sensuality. The original novel actually predates Chocolat (and its respective source text), but the forty-year gap between The Bookshop book and The Bookshop movie only serves to make nearly every plot point and character beat seem incredibly clichéd and played out. We have the weary, earnest widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), who decides to open a bookshop in her dreary little English village; we have the wealthy, petty, manipulative Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) who wants to stop her; we have Christine, the precious, devilishly charming child who helps Florence at the shop (Honor Kneafsey); we have Mr. Brundish, the mysterious, reclusive benefactor who supports Florence in her cause (Bill Nighy); and, most importantly, we have the expected coterie of small-minded, suspicious, incurious townsfolk who, ultimately, let Florence (and the cause of literary appreciation) down. There’s even an overly-explanatory narration that turns out to have been a recollection by the aforementioned child the entire time.
Everything in this story goes exactly how you think it will, which means you can basically watch it on autopilot, letting yourself be distracted by the (few and far between) discrete elements that shock you into paying a bit of attention: the visually clever way director Isabel Coixet renders the epistolary friendship that develops between Mr. Brundish and Florence, with Nighy delivering the contents of his letters directly to the camera rather than through voiceover, or the blue-green palette that gives the rain-soaked seaside town of Hardborough its own air of melancholy. Yet for a movie about a bookshop, there’s strangely very little emphasis on the books themselves. A subplot about whether Lolita is too scandalous to sell basically goes nowhere; the bookshop is merely a prop to be used in a morality play that condemns the ignorant and those resistant to change and makes Florence into a martyr for daring to shake things up—to bring a little creativity into people’s lives.
It’s a noble argument, to be sure, but it’s one that has been made by countless other works of art, which have done it better. Again, I must return to Chocolat, which contains pretty much every element present in The Bookshop, but presents them in infinitely richer and more tantalizing ways. They’re even set in the same postwar time period—1959. It’s as if to ward off comparisons to Chocolat, the team behind The Bookshop has gone in completely the other direction from that headier film. Where chocolate is daring, forbidden, and tempting, rooted in physical pleasure and experience, books are items that Florence says are important, but ultimately don’t accomplish much in the narrative of the film: they’re MacGuffins, infinitely replaceable with any other item that might push the envelope in a homogenous small town.
The performances in The Bookshop are uniformly adequate: each character plays precisely the role you think they will in this little melodrama, with no variation from their archetype. Emily Mortimer, infinitely deserving of better projects, is sympathetic as Florence; Bill Nighy does his best Bill Nighy—sitting stiffly, being gruff and eccentric and soft-hearted underneath a cold facade, while Honor Kneafsey at least gets to play a rebellious scamp in a more highbrow project than A Christmas Prince. Patricia Clarkson clearly enjoys playing a British villain, swanning about elegantly and scheming in private to take away Florence’s shop. It’s never quite clear, though, why Violet Gamart is so dedicated to ruining Florence’s life and happiness in such a targeted way. Once more, in Chocolat, the parallel role of the Comte de Reynard (Alfred Molina), is explained through his hypocrisy, his hollow desire to appear pious and faithful. But aside from Violet’s desire to control everything going on in the village of Hardborough, and just generally being a nosy, casually cruel person, there’s not any real motivation to make us care even a little bit about her. The character of Milo North (James Lance), a sort of rakish man-about-town eager to stay in Violet’s good graces, is even more frustrating, and inconsistently written to serve the plot—to gain Florence’s trust, and to then betray her trust when it matters most. When Florence goes to confront him, neither the character nor the script knows why he did it. There’s no greater loyalty to religion, or even to custom, that makes the villains in The Bookshop anything more than cardboard cutouts that might entertain from scene to scene, but stir not one iota of sympathy or identification. And so I have to wonder: in a world with basically unlimited entertainment options, with multiple projects in every conceivable genre, who is The Bookshop even for?