A woman’s modest but passionate dream of running a book store goes up against small-town politics in Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop. Based on Penelope Fitzgerald’s acclaimed novel, it takes place in 1959 in the fictional town of Hardborough, an East Anglian village on the Suffolk coast. Young widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) thinks her way to a life of sharing books with her neighbors is clear after she wades through the local bureaucracy to secure the aptly named Old House — a decrepit, long-abandoned, possibly haunted building — for her shop.
In reality, her struggle is really only just beginning. Because it turns out that local grand dame Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) had her eye on the Old House, too, and she doesn’t want anyone else to have it. What follows is a genteel but relentless campaign to thwart Florence’s chances of success and force her out of business. Florence has her allies — chiefly sympathetic, book-loving recluse Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy) and spirited young Christine (Honor Kneafsey), whom Florence hires as a shop assistant. But Violet reigns over just about everyone else and even has connections in Parliament.
In other words, it’s hardly a fair fight. But Florence is no quitter. She stocks controversial titles like Lolita and The Martian Chronicles, determined to expose her fellow East Anglians to new ideas. (Instead, she gets protestors.) She’s loyal to her friends and supporters. And she believes in her dream. Mortimer plays all of this with quiet but steely determination; Florence doesn’t have many outbursts, but when she does, they hit home.
Like the town it’s set in, The Bookshop is a small, intimately observed drama with an undercurrent of melancholy; it’s hard not to think how much Florence could have achieved had she been born in another time and place. Or what else she and Mr. Brundish could have meant to each other in different circumstances. But Coixet keeps the film’s spirit true to the circumstances of Florence’s life, delivering a story that’s poignant and meaningful, even as you can’t help railing against the limitations she faces. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Marilyn Ferdinand: Actresses Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson, who were part of the crack ensemble cast of Sally Potter’s The Party (2017), are together again with another brilliant cast to tell an equally rueful, if much more sober story of triumph, disappointment, and courage. Mortimer plays Florence Green, a bibliophile who honors her memories of her long-dead husband, whom she met while both worked in a London bookshop, by opening her own bookshop in a long-disused house in her small English town. Who would have thought this simple act would rain so much grief down upon her! It comes in the form of Violet Gamart (Clarkson), the town’s rich society doyenne who decides to assert her privilege by wresting the house from Florence for an art center. Mortimer is thrilling as a smart, passionate, giving woman who decides to face her Goliath down, inspiring her young helper (Honor Kneafsey) and disillusioned customer (Bill Nighy) in the process. The Bookshop, based on a novel by English author Penelope Fitzgerald, was helmed and adapted for the screen by Catalan director Isabel Coixet. Coixet has directed thrillers, ghost stories, romantic comedies, science fiction, and documentary films set in locations as disparate as Tokyo, New York City, and the wilds of Greenland. Her adaptability, versatility, and, above all, sensitivity shine through in this English-to-the-core gem.
Anne Brodie: Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop is the proverbial hammer wrapped in velvet. Emily Mortimer is Florence Green, a woman determined to set up a bookshop, her lifelong dream, in an historic home in a small English Village. She finds the perfect spot and lovingly restores the “inhabitable” space for work and living. She orders the books, has the local Boy Scouts build shelving and finds a local lass to help after school. The dream is coming true, But Florence didn’t count on the local aristo’s jealous greed and the complicity of the villagers to do their “better’s” bidding – that is, run her out of town. The flimsy excuse is that Violet (Patricia Clarkson) has always wanted the place for an arts centre, even though it’s sat vacant for years. Violet launches a harassment campaign against Florence, plants her lapdogs in the shop and works away at Florence’s sense of belonging, even safety. Spies are everywhere. That’s the hammer, the velvet comes in the shape of a reclusive aristo (Bill Nighy) who buys her books and finds it in himself to confront Violet. Florence acts with dignity at all times as she stands up for her rights to be there and work and exist while set upon by the classicist upper crust. More velvet – the story is set in a glorious, windswept seaside village, surrounded by vast landscapes where Florence finds solace. The satisfying ending hits hard bringing into focus the darkness in the heart of that story book village.
Nell Minow: Penelope Fitzgerald’s book about the ruthlessness and resolve that can be glimpsed underneath apparent graciousness and courtesy is brought to the screen by Isabel Coixet with outstanding performances by Patricia Clarkson and Emily Mortimer.
Nikki Baughan: Emily Mortimer delivers another glorious performance in The Bookshop, a British period film whose polite tone and genteel manner belies some fierce ideas about independence, bravery and strength. Mortimer is Florence Green, a widowed woman living in the closeted rural surroundings of East Anglia in 1959 who is determined to parlay her love of reading into opening a community bookshop. When she comes up against the might of local socialite Violet (a refined, ferocious Patricia Clarkson, magnificent in a similar matriarchal monster role to that which she plays in TV’s Sharp Objects), who wants to turn the earmarked building into an arts centre, Florence finds herself having to stand up against some fearsome, if well-mannered, opposition. In adapting the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, Catalan writer/director Isabel Coixet effortlessly captures the very English cultural claustrophobia that Florence finds herself in. In an England only just emerging from the shock of World War II, and on the cusp of the huge social changes of the 1960s, independent women like Florence were still looked upon with suspicion. Mortimer gracefully embodies that polite but focused strong will which, as the film progresses, turns into a gutsy determination that you simply can’t help but root for.
MaryAnn Johanson Bookishness is not a quality that translates well to the screen: the quiet comfort of solitude of curling up with a good book couldn’t be less cinematic. But Emily Mortimer beautifully embodies that elusive literary withdrawal from the world in The Bookshop, and director Isabel Coixet captures in her that introversion with slightly jarring handheld cinematography that is exactly the opposite of what we might expect from a cosy historical drama like this one. If the film isn’t entirely successful — it’s surprisingly lacking in conflict, for one thing — there are still pleasures to be found here, particularly for those who identify with Mortimer’s Florence Green and her love of books.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Bibliophiles who believe that “no one ever feels alone in a bookshop” will feel a connection to The Bookshop‘s protagonist Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a widow who fulfills her dream of owning a bookstore in a small coastal English town in 1959. Mortimer gives a lovely and nuanced performance as a book lover who wants to make Bradbury and Nabokov available alongside Thackeray and Dickens, even if the town’s grand dame Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson, who’s an expert at playing petty rich women) would prefer the location be used as a vaguely defined “arts center.” Catalan director Isabel Coixet adapts the late English author Penelope Fitzgerald’s book without turning it into a sentimental David vs. Goliath tale. The plot is quite simple, the acting notably good (Bill Nighy is wonderful as Edmund Brundish a hermetic landowner who corresponds with and strikes up a sweet relationship with Florence), and the message a reminder of why we should all support independent bookstores.
Esther Iverem: In her new film, The Bookshop, director Isabel Coixet finds what joy for life and art really exists amid the soul-less and repressed people of a small English town. Based on the novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald, this troubling story, about a widower who attempts to open a new business, offers stark lessons about class, power, and capitalism and corruption masquerading as government.
Jennifer Merin Adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, Catalan director Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop is a rather bookish film — in a very good and comforting way. In a small town in East Anglia during the post-war 50s, Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a war widow, intends to rebuild her life by transforming a disused property she’s purchased into a bookshop. She finds unexpected resistance to her plan from long-term town resident and socialite, Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), who wants the property to be used as an arts center. Of course small town citizens’ squabbles can quickly lose allure, but interest in this perfectly charming village drama is rounded out by the presence of a local book-loving recluse (Bill Nighy, who becomes an avid shop patron, and that of an impressionable tween girl (Honor Kneafsey) who becomes a part-time employee and,through her fresh eyes, reintroduces us to the joy of reading. And, it is ever so refreshing that the issue at hand is whether an old building should be used as a bookshop or an arts center, with nary a mention of Staples, Ikea or The Gap.
Liz Whittemore: The Bookshop is the perfect reminder that you can both lose yourself and find yourself inside the pages of a great novel. Small town politics clash with fear of big change found inside a new bookshop and by it’s widowed owner. This acclaimed Penelope Fitzgerald novel, adapted for the big screen, is as charming as ever. It plays out much like a book, slowly and with beautiful character development and outstanding performances by all.
Cate Marquis In 1950s Britain, a widow moves to a small English village, buys a old house in town that had stood empty for years, with the intention to open a bookshop. Sounds harmless enough, maybe even something the village would welcome. But Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) does not find it so. It isn’t so much the bookshop that is the problem, although one seemly friendly villager offers her the not-to-encouraging advice that people around there don’t read. Well, the villager admits, there is one reader, the reclusive Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy) but he never leaves his decaying mansion. No, the real problem,as it turns out, is not lack of readers, but that Florence happened to pick as the spot for her bookshop the very old house that a powerful local aristocrat Violet Gamat (Patricia Clarkson) had her eye on, planning to turn the building that everyone in town calls “the old house” into an “arts center.” Read full review.
Title: The Bookshop
Directors: Isabel Colixet
Release Date: August 24, 2018
Running Time: 113 minutes
Screenwriter: Isabel Coixet, based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald
Distribution Company: Greenwich Entertainment
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin