FILM REVIEW – THE BOOKSHOP. With Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson, Honor Kneafsey, James Lance. Written and directed by Isabel Coixet. Rated PG for some thematic elements, language, and brief smoking. 113 minutes.
It might sound strange to complain that a movie set in a bookstore is too literary, and yet here we are. Despite the best efforts of a winning cast, writer-director Isabel Coixet’s adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s beloved 1978 novel is a chunky, undigested construct. The themes of THE BOOKSHOP are bluntly articulated, yet also too abstractly rendered to play out in a satisfying cinematic context — watching it feels like reading CliffsNotes. Stripped of Fitzgerald’s prose, the events as depicted don’t pack much dramatic punch. This is no slight on the source material, just a reminder that not every great book needs to be a movie. In fact, most of them probably shouldn’t.
Emily Mortimer stars as a kindly WWII widow attempting to open a bookstore in a quaint little Suffolk town, instantly and unknowingly arousing the ire of a local dowager (Patricia Clarkson) who had eyes on converting the musty old shop into a community arts center. Of course, any bookstore worth a damn automatically becomes a community arts center in its own right, but Coixet has curiously little interest in depicting the town’s relationship with the title establishment. We’re simply informed via voice-over when business is booming and when it’s slow — a dull, tell-don’t-show approach Coixet’s screenplay extends to most matters of plot.
The one thing in the movie that works is our shopkeeper’s tentative friendship with a bookish recluse played by the great Bill Nighy. The lovely, swan-necked Mortimer strikes some unexpected sparks with the rigid-faced character actor. Nighy’s natural expression of severe gastrointestinal distress is usually deployed for poker-faced comedy, but here he finds a more romantic and affecting meter, mining the minimalism of his movements for a deep pathos. You love watching them together, and when he abruptly exits the film it feels like the pilot light has been blown out.
There’s a brief scandal surrounding the store when Mortimer decides to stock a controversial new bestseller by some guy named Vladimir Nabakov, and it appears as if the stage is being set for a lively conflict over censorship and freedom of expression. But that, like so many other storylines just sort of fizzles out, film instead on Clarkson’s increasingly elaborate and cinematically inert plans to rid the town of Mortimer’s shop once and for all. (You’d figure “Lolita” would be an easy enough angle, but instead Coixet opts to drown us in old English real estate law.)
Plucky young Honor Kneafsey co-stars as a kid who helps Mortimer around the shop, despite a vociferously stated preference for math over literature. She’s one of those characters that’s more of a device than a person, complete with the voice of a Secret Special Guest Star narrating the film from her perspective in the present day.
Coixet and cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu stick to a postcard palate, stressing the banal beauty of these surroundings even when at odds with the needs of the script. “The Bookshop” has some big ideas it wants to make about conformity, provincialism and the price of individuality. But both Mortimer and Nighy’s characters would presumably agree you’re better off reading the book.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.