I watched this film in a cinema preview screening a couple of months ago. The reaction of the audience was mixed ranging from the enthusiastic to the vitriolic. I feared for the film on release and it has indeed been damned by most UK reviewers after its opening last week. I actually enjoyed it but I can see that for many audiences it might not work. However, if you forgive a couple of problems there is plenty to admire.
The first consideration is that this is a literary adaptation of a much-loved and celebrated novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. I haven’t read the novel but I could feel the sense of a literary narrative in the very distinctive characters and the ways in which they are represented. The second consideration is that this is an adaptation by the Catalan Isabel Coixet who both wrote and directed the film. Coixet has made several English language ‘international’ films, none of which I’d seen before this one. In Spain the film was a big success and it won many awards and nominations at Spanish festivals. Unfortunately, this particular narrative needs some careful handling of the nuances of the English class system and details of English culture in the 1950s. Coixet’s production decisions are not always helpful.
As the title suggests, the story concerns a bookshop newly established in a small coastal town in the late 1950s by Florence Green, a youngish widow with a love of books and just enough money to get a business going. Florence discovers that she has an implacable enemy in the town in the shape of the woman in the ‘big house’, Mrs Gamart. She wants the bookshop building for an arts centre and she doesn’t think much of Florence’s ideas or her values. Fortunately, Florence will discover a possible ally in the reclusive Mr Brundish. These three characters and their conflicts provide most of the plot incidents. The trio are played by Emily Mortimer as Florence, Patricia Clarkson as Mrs Gamart and Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish. These fine actors are arguably the main attractions for a UK audience – and possibly also one of the sources of confusion for the audience.
The Bookshop is a Spanish film made in Barcelona studios and interiors and on location in Northern Ireland on Strangford Lough. The creative HoDs and the crew were all Spanish apart from some Irish personnel. I spent most of the film wondering where on earth the narrative was set and by the end had decided on Ireland (but I haven’t been to the Lough, so I wasn’t precise). None of this matters except that I knew the fictional town was meant to be in Suffolk according to the publicity material (and the novel). The film certainly doesn’t look or feel like it is set in coastal Suffolk – typically flat landscapes and shingle beaches. Instead we get hills, cliffs, rocks and sand and forests. Several user comments suggest that the accents are all over the place. They didn’t bother me but I can see the criticism. The other complaints are about the minutiae of book covers and anachronistic books etc. All of these small points get in the way of engagement with the story but overall I think the problems are as much to do with audience expectations as with the film itself.
Seeing the poster, recognising the three stars and then noticing the blurb, I think many UK and possibly US audiences will have expected a kind of BBC or ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ kind of literary adaptation. These are sometimes rather cosy with a veneer of authentic detail (a ‘surface’ realism) and a strong narrative drive. The Bookshop is perhaps more ‘quirky’ with a more elusive narrative. It lacks the veneer of correct period detail but for me it sets up intriguing questions that kept me guessing. The narrative resolution is a surprise but for me worked very well. Emily Mortimer is an actor I admire and I think she is very good in the role. Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson are more of a problem – both are asked to play strong distinctive characters who are actually not seen that often – they each have a handful of set piece scenes. Nighy in particular has a well-known persona as a comedic actor which doesn’t fit this particular role so some audiences might be disappointed.
The story is about Florence and I think that the film works when we focus on her and her struggles. The book covers in the shop may be ‘inauthentic’ but I liked the costume design and those 1950s outfits , so stifling and conservative are made slightly more daring for Florence, matching her decisions to shake up the locals by stocking Nabokov’s Lolita (and making a visual reference to the novel’s first publication from the Olympia Press in Paris – very shocking in the 1950s). Florence’s only real relationship is with her very young schoolgirl assistant played by Honor Kneafsey and very good she is too. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but I will point out that this is not a conventional narrative about good triumphing over evil or adversity. Instead it is an intense character study of Florence Green. The film is photographed by the veteran French cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu, a long-term collaborator with Isabel Coixet. I enjoyed his work very much and a trip to County Down is very much on my horizon.
Here are the American and Spanish trailers, slightly different I think. My advice is to dispense with any assumptions about what it will be like and simply go with it.