The Bookshop, director/writer Isabel Coixet’s (Learning to Drive) adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 novel, has the feel of a book found collecting dust on the back shelf of a closet. There’s an expectation of great potential considering the lineage, but on closer examination the experience teeters on tedium so much it ends up a mystery of what the draw was in the first place.
A widow, Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), takes a major emotional and financial leap in 1959 to open a bookshop in the conservative coastal town of Hardborough, Suffolk. She opens her bookstore as a loving tribute to her dead husband.
Although her progressive thinking — powered by the writings of Vladimir Nabokov and Ray Bradbury — sends a ripple through the conservative community; that is not what attracts the immediate assault from Mrs. Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), the local grand dame who controls everything that happens in the city. She has her mind set on opening an art center in the building where Green has opened her bookstore and will use any means to obtain the use of the location. Green’s only support comes from a reclusive widower (Bill Nighy) who has a passion for reading.
This unfolds in a production that is melancholy in mood, arthritic in movement and emotionally stagnant. It would have to find a major boost of energy just to be considered a worthy presentation on Masterpiece Theatre. The only saving grace are beautiful performance by Mortimer and Nighy.
All of this plays out through a style of filmmaking by Coixet that lacks any signs of passion. She’s content to allow long conversations to unfold with a minimalistic use of camera movement. This isn’t a story that requires grand visual gestures, but that doesn’t mean the production looks like the crew was allowed to take a nap during filming.
Couple that with a story that springs from a very iffy beginning and never builds to any dramatic tensions and the results are forgettable. It starts with the animosity Gamart spreads through the small community coming across as forced. The obsession to take over the space need some background — especially with Gamart’s character — to act as a foundation for the tale. There is such a thing as small-town politics, but even that has to spring from some logical place.
Along with a lack of structure for Gamart, Coixet shows a laziness with the character of Milo North (James Lance). It’s never made clear if he is a con artists getting through life on his looks, a kept man willing to do any lapdog job or a man of so low morals he would rather see others fail just to make himself feel better. Coixet never writes, nor does Lance rise to the acting challenge, to make this character a viable player in this soft-shelled melodrama.
Part of the problem is that the film is based on a book and Coixet can only go so far before the adaptation becomes a completely different story. Her adherence to novel — particularly with an unsatisfying ending — doesn’t bring a new visual life to what should be enjoyed as a written word.
Only Mortimer is able to rise above the echoes of emptiness to make Green an interesting character. She’s a strong-willed woman at a time when that was not in vogue and a lover of the written word. Mortimer has such a compelling ability to act with her face that she get across several waves of deep emotions despite Coixet’s comatose style of direction.
Their scenes together are limited, but when Mortimer and Nighy are together, there is such a strong connection between the players, they provide needed emotional lifts. Nighy continues to be a treasure bringing brilliance to each performance. Sadly, their time together is far too limited.
The Bookshop has a dusty feel to it as if the production has been languishing in mediocrity while waiting to be discovered. Except for a couple of strong performance, there is no reason to go in search of this work.