F or some reason, popular culture tends to give small town life the benefit of the doubt. Big cities, we all know, are crime-filled, impersonal, and full of poseurs, while the righteous folk who make up the “real” people of their native land live in the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else. By this theory, a well-trimmed hedge and properly maintained yard speak to the moral wholesomeness of those who dwell within, and the plainness of small-town life is a positive virtue because residents are never tempted to think, must less venture, outside the lines of their well-ordered lives.
The contrast between our first impressions of Hardborough, a picturesque Suffolk seaside village, and the reality of the town’s power structure, are the main subject of Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop, adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 novel of the same name. Although this film offers plenty to please book lovers, it would be a mistake to come to it expecting an untroubled escape into a simpler era—instead, you are more likely to leave it agreeing with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple that “one does see so much crime in a village.” The Bookshop is a study of the power relations in a small town, and while no one actually shows up with a knife in his back, the deeds committed in this film may be worse because everyone seems so nice while they’re metaphorically cutting each other off at the knees.
To begin at the beginning, Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a book-loving war widow, moves to Hardborough to open a bookstore. She buys a neglected property, the Old House, to serve both as her home and shop, and sets about fixing it up. She’s a free spirit by the standards of the England of 1959, and stocks novels by Ray Bradbury and Vladimir Nabokov alongside more familiar classics. Florence finds a kindred spirit in the local recluse, Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), who becomes a regular but usually long-distance customer. A local girl named Christine (Honor Kneafsey) comes to work in the shop, and a bounder named Milo North (James Lance) finds a lot of reasons to be around Florance without ever seeming to do anything useful.
The local godfather, so to speak, is the wealthy Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson, who plays her character just a hair short of Cruella de Vil), who intended to buy the Old House to turn it into an arts center. That’s what she says, anyway, and she is not at all pleased by Emily’s efforts to use the property in a different way. Violet looks on the arts as yet another means of controlling people—she would choose the programming at the arts center, because she knows best, a model of education in complete contrast to the prospect offered by Emily, in which people could choose for themselves the books they want to read. Violet is also used to getting her own way, and she certainly doesn’t appreciate some out-of-towner claiming something she wanted for herself (common sense ideas like choosing a different property for the arts center simply don’t enter her head).
The Bookshop is beautifully shot by Jean-Claude Larrieu and the film’s attention to period detail is exquisite. It often feels like a filmed play, due to the emphasis on the spoken word and the directorial choice to have both Mortimer and Nighy directly articulate their characters’ thoughts and feelings (Mortimer in voiceover, Nighy in direct addresses to the camera). The film’s feel is a bit unusual for those accustomed to the invisible style of filmmaking typical of American movies, but that was due to deliberate choices made by Coixet. The Bookshop has won numerous awards in Europe, and if you’re willing to accept this film on its own terms, you will be able to appreciate what many critics and viewers have found to enjoy in it. | Sarah Boslaugh