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New Release Review (DVD) - THE BOOKSHOP

the bookshop film review
A woman defies local opposition to open a bookshop in a small village in 1959 Britain.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Isabel Coixet

Starring: Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson, Hunter Tremayne, Honor Kneafsey

the bookshop dvd

Based upon the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop begins as a cockles warming fantasy. Set in the 1950s upon a near impossibly picturesque East Anglian island (actually Portaferry, County Down), the film sees pretty war-widow Florence (Emily Mortimer, more like a lovely real-life Olive Oyl than ever) attempt to set up a bookshop amidst the gentle daily rhythms of the small coastal town. Hardborough has a fishing industry, landed gentry, and neighbours who are able to bake the sorts of cakes that would have sent Mel and Sue into a paroxysm of entendres back in the day, but for whatever reason it doesn’t have a bookshop. The fisherman claims he doesn’t have much time for reading, and the bank manager (referred to behind his back as ‘Mr. Potato Head’, the shit) also scorns the pastime. Thus, Florence is working against the tide, and conflict occurs as she attempts to turn her ramshackle old house into a charming bookshop, offering the townspeople some Grapes of Wrath with their high tea and keeping the Woolf from her own door.


the bookshop film review

To paraphrase a denizen of Florence’s bookshelves, the past is a foreign country, and it seems as if they really did do things differently there. It follows that the small c conservative comforts offered by The Bookshop - a quiet, self-sufficient island, free of the urban temptations of drugs, sex and progress (and any foreigners) - is a Leave voter’s lurid dream. Cockles may be warmed here, but hackles may also be raised in these early scenes, too; a token working class character humbly speaks in halting utterances which contrast the formal mellifluence of her peers and is, of course, costumed to look like Widow Twankey; a voiceover (provided by Julie Christie!) is annoyingly elucidative; and I’m still not entirely sure why Patricia Clarkson’s councillor is so dead against Flo’s bookshop (a matter of empathy further complicated by the fact that she wants to set up an arts centre instead, a commendably municipal intention which furthermore would have led to the sort of place where this summer’s theatrical exhibitions of The Bookshop occurred!).


the bookshop film review

However, any film that extols the virtues of Ray Bradbury and has a plot point that hinges on the release of Lolita is alright by me (pleasingly, Nabakov’s notorious tome still has the power to unsettle people - try reading it openly on the train). There is an emotionally cathartic scene involving, simply, the cover to Dandelion Wine, and delivers a cumulation of Florence’s relationship with Salinger-esque recluse Mr. Brundish (an inevitable Bill Nighy), the unspoken Remains of the Day-esque beats of their relationship providing the film with its most intriguing, and surprising, cadences. The mystery surrounding Nighy’s character - a supposed widower, whose self-imposed isolation sets off all manner of rumour mongering - neatly supports one of the film’s central themes, namely, the need for stories and imagination to make sense of our surroundings. There is more too to please bibliophiles in The Bookshop, with the as-new reproductions of the original covers of Florence’s inventory offering nerdy thrills to someone with such an all-encompassing book habit as mine (and what stock: seemingly, Florence has manged to get hold of a copy of Phillip Larkin’s collected poems, 30 years before publication! Fair play). Also, Ben off Alan Partridge pops up as a duplicitous playboy, and deserves a mention as he is great fun, still as supercilious and patronising as his smug motel bell boy all those years ago.


the bookshop film review

It’s unfair to judge The Bookshop by its initial cover of chocolate box Britain and warm nostalgia. Coixet’s screenplay shifts from such idealised tableaux, and finds narrative weight in Florence’s essential naivety, building to the sort of twists that can only work when the film has invested deeply in its characters. Coixet’s film becomes a study of loneliness, and gently heart-breaking denouements. Yet another bookshop I found impossible to resist.

The Bookshop is on DVD October 22nd.


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