“Everyone needs a good story” is the tagline for The Bookshop, a period-piece drama that feels like a book being read to you with all the cross-medium problems implied by that idea. Reading a book ingratiates you with the interior lives of the characters with whom you are experiencing the story, which means a cast can stay relatively small while a narrative may feel large. Having a book read to you can be, well, different; as you sit there, imagining each character, you lose the cadence of their thoughts and the rhythms of the story. The Bookshop features expert directing by Isabel Coixet but is nonetheless lost in translation. The adaptation never makes the story feel cinematic.
It’s a pleasant but slow and, ultimately, pretty thin.
Based on Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 novel, the story centers around Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a widow who opens a bookshop in her small English town. Florence comes to learn that her real estate is deeply desired by local rich socialite Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), who wants to stroke her own ego by turning it into an art center. It’s a working class versus wealthy class story.
It moves at the pace you would expect from this type of movie, which is to say a trailer you see at an arts theater featuring muted (but well-shot) cinematography, piano music, basic social drama, a dead spouse (or two) and a bittersweet sensibility.
I love books, and I love working in book stores, and the voiceovers about a love for books are sweet. Florence is the kind of woman I have known many times and am, in fact, married to — the kind who care deeply for books and what they offer, and how they relate to their social world. The sequences that feature Florence simply reading, or talking about books, are the pleasure of The Bookshop because they feel soft and true. The sequences of her being fucked over by people whose boundaries are defined by limitless money and ego, well, that all feels true, too, but plotty and familiar.
A slice-of-life movie about a person running a bookshop and the people she encounters would have provided story enough for the aesthetic of The Bookshop, while adding enough social-commentary grounds to still tell a meaningful story. That’s not to say the conflict between Florence and Violet isn’t meaningful, it just doesn’t feel developed.
Bill Nighy shows up as Edmund Brundish, a local wealthy widower who becomes Florence’s primary customer. Having seen Nighy in roles in every genre imaginable, it almost seems a shame to have him play a subdued hermit. His story, though, feels as much a foregone conclusion as everything else.