“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” the poet said. People don’t like change, we understand it to mean.
If only Florence Green knew the poets as well as she loved novelists, she could have avoided a world of trouble, setting up a bookshop in her sleepy English coastal village in the late 1950s.
Who would have thought “The Bookshop” would stir so much enmity among the conservatives and those under their thumbs in tiny Hardborough?
Penelope Fitzgerald’s parable about politics and power applied in the most close-minded ways comes to the screen in a lovely, stately and painfully slow film by the director of “Learning to Drive” and “Elegy.” Whatever life Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson try to breathe into it adapter/director Isabel Coixet sucks right out.
Mortimer is Mrs. Green, a widowed book-lover who decides the long empty “Old House” at the end of Hardborough’s main street would be a good location for a bookshop. She could live upstairs and run the shop below, and even the patronizing banker (Hunter Tremayne in a huff) has to admit she’s done her homework.
But the moment she starts to move in the trouble begins. A retiring fish monger suggests his shop would be a better location. Her solicitor (Jorge Suquet) mentions “There are many other properties” she could take on. A rake from the BBC (James Lance) who lives there wonders if she’s thought of “moving out?”
All because the town’s wealthy snob, self-appointed patroness and “nothing gets done here without my approval” empress (Clarkson) has her own ideas for The Old House.
“We’ve all been praying for a good bookshop in our town,” she purrs, even as she’s suggesting Mrs. Green would be the perfect “manager” for her own plans for The Old House — an arts center.
It’s just that Mrs. Green won’t be put off. “She had a great heart and enormous patience” our narrator (Julie Christie) tells us. She’ll need them.
The story is spun through with promising threads. The biggest reader in town, everyone knows, is the reclusive Mr. Brundish, given his usual dapper turn by Bill Nighy. He informs — by letter — Mrs. Green, that he hails the arrival of The Old House Bookshop “in this forsaken corner of the world,” and promises his support. Sort of. Any time she finds a new work “of literary merit” she can send it to him by messenger, with a note about it and its price, and he’ll buy it.
She sends him Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and rocks his world.
There are no secrets in a small town, and the only other truly helpful fellow, a fisherman/ferryman, Mr Raven (Michael Fitzgerald) sends his group of young Sea Scouts to help set up shop. Others assure Florence she’ll need an assistant, and run through the sisters in a populous, needy family until the curly, outspoken tween Christine (plucky Honor Kneafsey) is sent to fill a job Mrs. Green didn’t think she needed.
The era in publishing seems sure to gin up controversy, with Bradbury, Nabokov (“Lolita”) and others stirring up the world with their words.
But the viper in velvet gloves Violet (Clarkson) is marshaling her forces and hellbent on getting her way, so Florence will need all the help — and sales — she can get.
There are potent metaphors about provincialism, the inbred intransigence of the ruling class, the temerity of their “inferiors,” English xenophobia and the like, timely in the Brexit age and the hand-wringing that’s accompanied it.
That and the characters are all Coixet focuses on, rarely letting “charming” or amusing seep into this town where the powers that be have decreed time must stand still until they say otherwise.
Clarkson’s passive-aggressive villainy lets us understand the general malaise, bordering on malevolence, which the locals have absorbed. This outsider is just stirring things up. Mortimer beautifully embodies a “Keep Calm and Ignore the Harpy” stoicism and Nighy, playing the latest in a long line of kind, remote, thoughtful and dapper eccentrics, adds a warmth the film sorely needs.
Whatever the ethos of the novel, the filmgoer wants to see the light — the hope that the recluse and the shop owner will bond over books, the children’s eyes opened to the wider world, a funny battle of wits and wills over The Old House, a nice comic uproar over Green’s selling copy after copy of the scandalous “Lolita.”
All hinted at, teased and ignited, only to be snuffed out in Coixet’s still-life direction. Message and metaphor are all and “The Bookshop,” with its terrific cast and lovely setting, barely overcomes that burden.
MPAA Rating:PG for some thematic elements, language, and brief smoking |
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson, James Lance, Honor Kneafsey
Credits:Directed by Isabel Coixet, script by based on the Penelope Fitzgerald novel. A Greenwich release.
Running time: 1:58