Movie Review: Despite some tears in its pages, ‘THE BOOKSHOP’ is filled with beauty

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

THE BOOKSHOP

Rated PG, 113 minutes.
Director: Isabel Coixet
Cast: Emily MortimerBill NighyHunter Tremayne,

Imagine wanting to open your own business. It revolves around a specific passion of yours, and it brings a sense of peace that you wish to provide to others in your town. You procure the rights to a space, make necessary repairs and breathe life into it through the precious inventory that you’ve handpicked to make your business special, as well as personal. However, because you picked the space that some powerful person coveted for benign reasons, that person uses all of their power to destroy your dream.

This is the premise of THE BOOKSHOP, an adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, and directed by Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet. The main character is Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), who is opening a bookshop in the middle of a Suffolk coastal town. She has no other intent than to succeed in brightening lives through various tomes that she handpicks. Her place of business becomes a point of attack for Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), a local socialite and town politician. Ms. Gamart wished to use the Old House to open an arts center before Florence bought the property from the bank.

As the business grows, so do Ms. Gamart’s intentions to drive her out. It seems Florence only has two allies in her life: a 10-yr old girl who helps at the shop named Christine (Honor Kneafsey), and Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy), who is the town recluse that has become popular by circulating rumors. Florence and Mr. Brundish strike a correspondence through her book suggestions, namely Ray Bradbury novels, but grows into a meaningful relationship as he becomes her respite from the mounting pressures of those working with Ms. Gamart.

Also written by Coixet, THE BOOKSHOP has a simple story going on but has a fine line to walk in terms of its presentation. The silent war between Florence and Ms. Gamart needs to stay the course but their needs to be visualization in order to relate the internal thoughts that are raging in both parties. For example, Florence maintains poise throughout the entire ordeal until an inevitable breaking point. However, throughout the film, there are shots of Florence sitting on the beach, still, while the environment moves around her. Because the interaction is passive aggressive on behalf of the antagonist, there needs to be imaging to help transition from Ms. Gamart’s “offense” to Florence’s reaction.

Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) attends Violet Gamart’s (Patricia Clarkson) fete- ‘THE BOOKSHOP’ – Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment.

To further drive the tension, Coixet uses several elements to help create impact where necessary. The town itself is very grey and still. There are various establishing shots to reiterate the stillness of Hardborough. Because these silent moments permeate throughout the narrative, the dialogue and facial expressions have a greater gravitas than Florence becoming overt and retaliatory. It allows for the audience to hang onto every line delivered, each word proper and eloquent, yet dripping with emotional resonance. Mortimer’s facial cues, especially her eyes, elicit sympathy and conviction as everything closes in on Florence.

The thin veil of courtesy is a major character in the film, as seen with a lot of British period pieces. Everyone is polite due to societal restrictions, but there is emotion bubbling beneath the surface. As Ms. Gamart is a member of the upper echelon, Clarkson’s posture and quick swipes at her adversary create a juxtaposition to the face she puts on for the public. The sole interaction between her and Nighy’s Mr. Brundish has a sudden power to it, as this outsider sees through the façade as the audience does.

While all of these elements help make THE BOOKSHOP have a subtle greatness, it does tend to falter toward the end in transitioning from the result of Florence’s uphill battle to a resolution that satisfies the viewer. The result is creating a feeling that’s as grey as the town itself. That being said, the romantic struggle of someone of modest means against someone of wealth and power will always be relatable material. The key is to be adult in materializing the subject matter instead of dumbing it down for mixed results.

In short, THE BOOKSHOP explores two different women: Florence, a widow who is spending everything on her dream, and Ms. Gamart, a woman of high society exhausting her resources to crush Florence’s dream. It’s calculating, mature, and, even though it expedites its conclusion, the film hangs on the viewer with a dreary beauty as the credits roll.

[Grade: B]

THE BOOKSHOP opens in limited release on Friday (8/31).
Dallas: Angelika Film Center in Plano and Landmark Magnolia in Dallas.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.