The Bookshop: A promising story that doesn’t deliver

June 15, 2018

 

The Bookshop (PG) 

Rating: 2.5 / 5

 

On paper, The Bookshop has everything going for it—terrific cast, lovely English scenery and a period setting.

 

So why did I walk out feeling vaguely unsatisfied with this film that promised to be as entertaining as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society?

 

Set in a small town in 1959 England, it is the story of Florence, a widow, who decides, despite polite but ruthless local opposition, to open a bookshop— a decision which becomes a political minefield.

 

We have an expectation that English village life is quaint and homely, full of people who support each other when the chips are down. So surely starting the first bookshop the village has ever known would be a crowd-pleaser in every sense?

 

The characters are well drawn and played by some terrific English talent. Leading the charge is Emily Mortimer’s Florence, sympathetically portrayed and very much the indomitable hero of the story, battling the forces of vague darkness in the village.

 

Chief villain is empire builder, justice of the peace and socialite Violet Gamart, who is determined that the old home which houses the bookshop should instead be used as an arts centre, dominated by her not so good self. Patricia Clarkson’s characterisation of Violet does have its over-the-top tendencies, but the smiling assassin type she plays is certainly recognisable to the audience. While Clarkson overplays her hand a little, she successfully sends shivers down our spines when we realise she will stop at nothing to get her way.

 

The other snake in the grass is former BBC identity Milo, a daffy, arch and eccentric character played by James Rance. In most English village stories he would be a delightful odd bod, but charm and betrayal seem to be his watchwords—a most unpleasant individual masquerading as a charmer.

 

Florence does have some support, in the form of the reclusive Mr Brundish—stalwart English star Bill Nighy—who gives everything to support Florence in her endeavours, even taking on the dreadful Violet. He gives his usual excellent performance, but sadly, we just don’t see enough of him in the film.

 

Florence takes on a juvenile assistant Christine, played by Honor Kneafsey, who may be familiar having played the strange young girl in the recent Agatha Christie film Crooked House. A fine young actor, she seems to specialise in playing intelligent characters who don’t really fit in.

 

This twist on a familiar scenario should make for an interesting film, but it hasn’t made an effective translation from book to screen—in plain language, I was left wanting more than the film gave me.

 

The Bookshop attempts to mimic Jane Austen, but the Austen-style narration that is heard throughout the film is irritating rather than illuminating. You need a light hand to make it work, and director Isabel Coixet doesn’t exhibit that here.

 

The ending is a bittersweet one—with the emphasis on bitter.

 

However, there are excellent perfor­mances from Mortimer and Nighy, so their fans will still enjoy the film. If you go in without expecting too much, you will not be disappointed.

 

Highlight: Excellent performances from Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy

Red flag: Adult themes

 

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