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Tuesday 29 May 2018

The Bookshop, Film 2017, directed by Isabelle Coixet, 7.5* out of 10

The Bookshop depicts the good and evil of English village life in the 1950s: repressed emotions, intrigue of the  upper classes towards the lower ones, calm determination without guile in the face of overwhelming odds. Somewhat flawed, yet very watchable.

1958 in the sleepy English seaside village of Hardborough, Suffolk. Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) is a war widow in her late 30s who has bought and moved into the “old house” an abandoned, long neglected abode. She also wants to turn part of her new home into a bookshop. This risky plan upsets quite a few people in Hardborough, most notably the wife of retired General Gamart (Reg Wilson), Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson). Violet Gamart holds a lot of sway in the aptly named Hardborough. She would like to turn the “Old House” into an Arts Centre run by her would be lover, the slimy author of questionable talent Milo North (James Lance), who undeservedly lives off public broadcasting licence fees. Florence’s unlikely allies in this uneven struggle are the redoubtable 13-year-old Christine (Honor Kneafsey), who becomes her shop assistant, and the mysterious gentlemen recluse Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), who becomes her first regular customer.

Adapted from a novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop is a film for bibliophiles with a penchant for books by Ray Bradbury and Vladimir Nabokov and a rather Manichean view of English seaside village society. Mr Brundish likes biographies about good people and novels about evil ones. And as the narrator (the very pleasant voice of Julie Christie) puts it, the world consists essentially of two kinds of people: those who destroy and those who are to be destroyed by them. The Bookshop shows us all the good and all the evil that we continental Europeans think of, when they think of England of the 1930s to the 1960s: repressed feelings, evil intrigue of the  upper classes towards the lower ones, calm determination and stiff upper lip without guile in the face of overwhelming odds. 

An interesting ideological aspect of the story is the honest shopkeeper battling without any state support against undeserving would be artists subsidised by the public broadcaster (BBC) and supported by the upper classes who are apt of using their privileged position to influence politics to further their personal interests. A rather unfashionable, somewhat Thatcherite view of what is wrong in the England of the late 1950s. English viewers of the Bookshop might object to this and to the internationality brought into the filming of such a very English story: Suffolk is set in Northern Ireland and Spain, a Spanish director is in charge, an American actress (Patricia Clarkson) plays a very English lady. 

In the end virtues to commend this movie outweigh its flaws: Director Isabelle Coixet tells a moving story in a clear and straightforward way; the ensemble acting is good, with Emily Mortimer delivering a beautifully judged performance; Bill Nighy is well-cast, doing what Bill Nighy does so very well; young Honor Kneafsey is a plucky street-wise Christine. The cinematography by Jean-Claude Larrieu is beautifully atmospheric. All this makes The Bookshop very watchable.

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