Writer-director Isabel Coixet has wowed indie audiences with film like My Life Without Me. Her films are usually about strong women, and sometimes their stories take place in seaside towns. This time she’s adapting Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Bookshop which is right up her and many people’s alleys. This time the protagonist is Florence Green (Emily Mortimer). She’s a young widow who found herself in a British town accessible to outsiders by boat. She’s opening up a bookshop, and this is during the late 1950’s. When small towns like hers would get copies of books when books could still be scandalous. It’s admirable that the story avoids that route. But Coixet focuses her time on showing Florence run her fingers through things that bookshops sell. Is this a movie or is this an ad?
Coixet doesn’t infuse any personality in this film. But in her defense, she’s working within a genre that has its own hard set rules. And she’s also working on something that doesn’t know which stories to tell. The actors do their best to save it though, specifically Mortimer who expresses Florence’s waning optimism. Despite her versatility she doesn’t get enough lead roles in good films. There’s also Bill Nighy who plays Mr. Burndish, Florence’s first and most loyal customer, conveying an anxious personality. People didn’t call it that back then nor understood it. Instead they just called him a recluse and spreading harmless rumors about it. The film’s best moments involve his character in some way. But these scenes still falls under the tiring trope of how small minded small towns can be.
Florence and Mr. Brundish have a chemistry that they thankfully don’t act on because of their age difference. Had The Bookshop been just about the two of them it would have been fine. Unfortunately there are the other townsfolk, all of them having different accents. The film explains away said accents but they’re still distracting. What ultimately sinks it is the baffling antagonism against the bookshop. Its main opponent is Mrs. Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson, a Coixet regular). Her accent is so old time-y she probably still Ghana is part of the ‘Empire’. That aside, everyone involved in creating her character doesn’t flesh her out as a person. Either the story can’t figure out its motivations or this is a victim of a scrambled adaptation. It’s sad to see see something this under cooked.