Movie Review: The Bookshop (2017)

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Fans of Lasse Hallstrom's Chocolat should flock to Spanish writer/director Isabel Coixet's lovely adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald's novel The Bookshop, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978 (and which the author won the next year for Offshore).

Set in a coastal East England village in 1959, The Bookshop centers on Emily Mortimer's headstrong bibliophile Florence Green who – just like Penelope Fitzgerald and the underrated Coixet for that matter – is a passionate woman ahead of her time.

Determined to open a bookshop in the village's historic Old House to not only honor her late husband (who loved to read as much as he loved her) but also follow through on a dream she'd had since she learned the trade as a girl, as the film begins, Florence puts her plan in motion.

With her banker and solicitor dragging their heels, Florence butts heads with the community's old guard, especially the village's wealthy Queen bee Violet Gamart (played by Coixet's Elegy and Learning to Drive star Patricia Clarkson). Violet, we discover, aspires to turn the Old House into an arts center.

On the surface two like-minded proponents of arts and culture, it isn't hard to imagine that under different circumstances Violet and Florence might've been friends. However, in a subtle commentary on the way that women in a male dominated society are forced to compete with one another and doubly so with the added prejudices of class and status, as soon as she senses that Florence won't bend to her will, Violet vows to block her at every turn.

Refusing to budge, the fiercely patient Florence instead uses Violet's threats to derail her as the fuel she needs to drive home her goal. Settling into the Old House, our unflappable heroine soon gains both a new assistant in hardworking schoolgirl Christine (Honor Kneafsey) as well as a loyal customer in the form of the town's much gossiped about bookworm and hermit, Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), who places orders with Florence by way of written correspondence.

With their burgeoning relationship strengthened by the building blocks of shared experience and taste, Florence finds an unlikely ally in the reserved man, eventually asking him if he believes in Vladimir Nabokov's newly published Lolita as much as she does to purchase a large quantity of stock for the shop.

Making the most of Nighy's deadpan delivery to drive home the meaning of a few key lines rather than employ him merely for ornamental comedic distraction, when Nighy's Brundish tells Florence he supports her plan for Lolita and adds "they won't understand it but that's for the best. Understanding makes the mind lazy," it serves once again as a nice metaphor for the town.

A beautifully understated picture with fine performances as well as painterly cinematography (by Jean-Claude Larrieu) so crisp you can almost feel the drops of water from the sea coming through the breeze in the trees, The Bookshop is a solid if at times slightly pedestrian adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel.

Yet even if the plot arc on its own is a bit static, Coixet's interpretation of it makes things exciting as you can view her Bookshop as a feminist allegory about "a woman with a vision" (as she wrote in the press notes) who must contend with pushback, obstacles, and condescension while working twice as hard to get half as far.

Additionally touching on issues of censorship while of course, celebrating the love of the written word – especially in print – Coixet's small film is filled with big ideas.

Stressing the importance of legacy while passing on the torch to the next generation or inspiring those her wake, just like Florence argued that nobody feels alone in a bookshop, Coixet knows everyone has a dream. And in her intelligent (if slight) feature, she and the always terrific Mortimer might just encourage you to take Florence's lead and pursue your own passion as well – Violet Gamarts be damned.

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