The Bookshop, from Catalan director Isabel Coixet, is so very, very English that the emotional life of the characters is buried deep. Almost no action and an unnecessary voice over explaining things make this an unusual but ultimately moving film.
Emily Mortimer played Florence Green. She was a widow after WWII. She decided, in 1959, to open a bookshop in a small seaside town in England.
Florence put the bookshop in the old house, a building that had been sitting empty for 6 years. For inexplicable reasons, the upper crust of the town didn’t want a bookshop located there.
In particular, one smarmy, soft-spoken representative of the upper class, Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), decided the building should be an arts center instead. The fact that it had been available for the past 6 years didn’t seem to matter now. Although she greeted newcomer Florence Green with all the right words, she began a campaign to destroy her and her bookshop.
Florence opened the shop anyway. A young local girl, Christine (Honor Kneafsey), worked for her. Her best customer was Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy). He was an odd one in the town because he didn’t interact with the townspeople much.
Violet was the kind of person who deluded people into thinking her way. She had legislators and lawyers who worked in secret to do her bidding. She convinced her husband and the people who moved in her social circles to help her. They all conspired against Florence and her bookshop.
Florence fought back with courage and perseverance – in a very muted English way. But there was no winning against the powers working against her. Edmund tried to help. He even showed anger.
I see the film as a parable. Released in 2017, it’s a tale of ruthless, moneyed power that eats those weaker and less powerful and spits them out to flounder without help. Isabel Coixet told this story in a proper English setting from 60 years ago with well-behaved characters. It almost hides the message that resonates powerfully in 2019, in a much wider political arena.
As a director, Isabel Coixet can take you from the intimate to the sweeping with ease. She shows you what’s happening, but she expects you to do some work. Like another of her films I reviewed, Elisa and Marcela (Elisa y Marcela), this film comes right up to the edge of being fantastic but leaves you feeling it should have been more or clearer somehow. Coixet also directed Patricia Clarkson in Learning to Drive. Again, it was a story where a woman’s small decisions and actions are a metaphor for something much larger.
I’m not going to give this film a blanket recommendation, because I think it’s too muted for some viewers. But if you’re willing to watch a slow build while enduring a voiceover, there is a payoff in The Bookshop.