“The Bookshop” Review

The Bookshop PosterThe Bookshop (2018)

Leo Tolstoy once said that all literature can be divided into two types of stories: a man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. “The Bookshop” falls into the latter category. The film first caught my attention when it won a number of Spanish Goya Awards, including the Best Film, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Awards, and also two Gaudi Awards. It is based on a novel by Penelope Fitzgerald and is set in England in 1959. In this story, Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a widow, opens a bookshop in a small coastal town and is taken aback by all the amazement of its inhabitants at such a move. Florence begins friendship with a reclusive book-lover Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy) and employs a schoolgirl Christine to assist her bookshop, not even realising the strings that a local woman of power Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) is willing to pull to whisk Florence out of her property and turn the premises of the bookshop into an art centre. It is clear that this little movie can work its charm to the hearts of the audience. However, it has so many problems, including the incredulous tension/antagonist moves and the slow pace, that the film may be best described as a beautifully-wrapped gift in a mawkish gift paper which really takes too long to open and when it is opened – nothing but a pile of saccharine and a bitter sense of disappointment are to be found inside.

I would like to begin my review by saying that I am a big book lover and consider bookshops almost sacred places. For example, see my book-related film lists: “5 Forthcoming Book-to-Film Adaptations that Can Go Very Wrong”, “5 Books that Deserved Better Film Adaptations” and “Girl Power: 20 Great Book-to-Film Adaptations”. Thus, as far as I am concerned, any film which emphasises a passion for reading and the importance of caring for books would have a good start with me already. “The Bookshop” starts on that strong note when its opening line is the following: “When we read a story, we inhabit it…the covers of a book like a roof and walls of a house”… “She liked the moment when you finish a book and a story keeps playing…[in your head] like the most vivid dream”. However, there needs to be a line drawn between an inspirational story and a completely fanciful and mawkish material. Unfortunately, as “The Bookshop” progresses, the story starts to resemble the latter scenario and one can sense emotional manipulation.

As a character, Florence Green is good-hearted, open and idealistic lady who has a passion for books and wants to share that passion with others. In that way, the film strongly resembles “Chocolat” (2000), both in its plot and characters. Since “The Bookshop” was written earlier, it probably makes greater sense to talk about “Chocolat” resembling “The Bookshop”. In both films, a woman without a partner comes from afar to a little village and opens a shop which unsettles the inhabitants. The key for the heroine in both stories is to win the goodwill of a seemingly unapproachable older member of the opposite sex and she succeeds – the friendliness of Comte de Reynaud and Edmund Brundish respectively. Moreover, in both stories, there is a little girl near the main heroine (Anouk and Christine respectively) and they fight together for their shop to become an accepted and respectable place in the community. Also, both films are based on books and hint at a morality dilemma at some point.

Emily Mortimer (“Shutter Island” (2010), “Match Point” (2005)) may fit the image of Florence Green perfectly and acts well, but her character does become a bit annoying after some time. The problem with this movie is that Florence is too unreasonably good, Violet Gamart is too unreasonable bad (without there being a logical or understandable reason for her menace), and the end result of the plot verges on ridiculous. It all becomes a bit silly when we have to accept that Violet Gamart wants to make a art centre out of one particular building which was in decline and will stop at nothing to reach her aim, and, in turn, Florence also only wants her bookshop at one particular residence. Florence’s obstacles neither seem immense nor believable. We may wonder about the powers of some people in small English rural villages in the 1950s, but when we also find out that two bookshops cannot compete in a single town, our patience to find out logic or meaning to events may run out. The result is a sentimentally foolish whimsy of a plot – a melodrama cooked out of nothing.  

Even if we interpret “The Bookshop” as a parable whereby there is a symbolic win of hidden power and law over people’s dreams, the film still misses some great opportunities to make the story more intriguing and interesting (perhaps by remaining too faithful to the book). In fact, as soon as we finally guess that now the plot goes for something deeper and understandable, it then takes a giant step backwards and we find ourselves once more where we started. For example, one may think that advising Florence to stock Nabokov’s “Lolita” in large numbers may lead to a moral outrage in the conservative community and her subsequent downfall. However, the film is not concerned with that side of affairs at all. 

However, there is also the interesting character of Edmund Brundish and the good performance by Bill Nighy (“The Limehouse Golem”), which could make “The Bookshop” memorable. Edmund is described in the film as “[adoring] books with the same passion that he detest[s] his fellow men”, and when Edmund becomes friends with Florence, it is her courage that he admires the most. There is some hint at romance between the two in the film, with the love for books bringing them together. However, the story is only too quick to put everything in their original order and Edmund and Florence into their respective places, and what follows is one awkward conversation (and many silences) after another. Also, because the characters of Florence and Edmund are exaggerated, the story does not become any more believable. Edmund is portrayed as a total misanthrope and Florence is too friendly and open to strangers. 

Another unfortunate aspect of this film is the theatrical and self-conscious acting of its actors. Perhaps, this was the movie’s intention to produce this odd effect, and it is most noticeable in James Lance who plays Milo North, a character who is never properly introduced in this movie. There is plenty of dry humour and British eccentricity, but the artificiality of the presentation and acting is still more memorable than any feeble attempts made at authenticity. Moreover, the film overdoes its off-screen narration/voice-over, trying too hard to ensure that the audience feels for Florence in her situation. However, in the end, the story has little to offer, and the fact that the film progresses forward with the confused pace of a newly-born snail does not help matters much. Apart from one single thought-provoking moment at the end of the film, the ending is disappointingly predictable.

The Spanish-born Isabel Coixet, who is both the screenwriter and director of “The Bookshop”, has certainty tried to inject into the film a certain charm, which also sporadically emanates from both Mortimer and Nighy, but, apart from the beautiful production/setting, the film has not managed to get much else right. The sentimentality and whimsiness of “The Bookshop” are overbearing; its story is almost completely lost in its confused pacing; and its characters’ behaviour is both awkward/artificial and, in the end, hardly believable. This, coupled with the theatricality of the presentation and acting, makes for a peculiar cinematic experience, which may just be enjoyed by those who appreciate these qualities in a movie. However, “The Bookshop” also commits one cardinal sin in film-making and it is boredom, and, hence, my relatively low score. 4/10

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9 thoughts on ““The Bookshop” Review

  1. My wife might well agree with your appraisal of the movie but I’ve got to confess I liked it a bit more than you did — in fact, “loved it almost unreservedly” might be a more accurate summary of my feelings about it.

    It all becomes a bit silly when we have to accept that Violet Gamart wants to make a art centre out of one particular building which was in decline and will stop at nothing to reach her aim, and, in turn, Florence also only wants her bookshop at one particular residence.

    Florence wants the bookshop to be in the Old House because she has bought the Old House with the specific purpose of putting her bookshop in it. She doesn’t see why she should move, and neither do I. Violet, on the other hand, obsessively yearns for the Old House for her bloody Arts Centre (which you suspect will never come into being) precisely because Florence bought the building while Violet was still in two minds about it — there’s nothing makes you want something more than its being taken away from you.

    I lived in a small English town/village for a couple of years (in Devon rather than Norfolk, but same difference), and all the various reactions of the locals seemed perfectly realistic to me. I recognized Violet! And her husband. And the ghastly Beeb guy. And Christine’s mother. And . . .

    I should add, as a qualifier to my love for the movie, that I do like me some pretentious. The staginess you mention is actually a plus-point for me.

    I hadn’t spotted the parallels to Chocolat, a movie that I’ve seen bits of but must now get on DVD from the library and sit down to watch properly. Many thanks for the tipoff!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughts! I understand that there will be people who would just love this film for what it stands – the theatrical acting/presentation – the story – it all has some peculiar charm. The story as you say maybe very relatable, but I guess I could not feel for Florence’s situation at all also because of the way they presented the situation. The so-called “villain” – Violet – had relatively little screen time, in my opinion, apart from some letter writing at the end and the appearance in the beginning. Her friend Milo had a lot of screen time but I also could not believe how Florence could not see right through him in the beginning. Oh well, there was just a lot of things that did not connect with me at all or made sense, but I completely realise where you are coming from too.

      As for “Chocolat”, I do recommend watching it (or watching it again). I noticed many very interesting and strong parallels between the two films, such as, for example, the fact that both heroines single out as their romantic or male friendship relative recluses or outsides of the community they arrived to. But – this is in no way a criticism to “The Bookshop”. On the contrary, it is more likely that “Chocolat”/Joanne Harris who had more than just a brief knowledge on “The Bookshop” before writing her book.

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