"THE BOOKSHOP" — 2½ stars — Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Hunter Tremayne, Patricia Clarkson; PG (some thematic elements, language and brief smoking); Broadway
A strong cast can go a long way, but fuzzy motivations keep Isabel Coixet’s “The Bookshop” from cinematic success.
Based on Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel — which makes perfect sense, given the subject matter — the film follows the story of a woman who struggles to open a bookshop in a small English village during the late 1950s.
Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) is in a peculiar position in English society. She’s fairly well-known around her adopted coastal home of Hardborough, but when she decides to convert a long-abandoned home into a bookshop, it becomes clear she remains outside the exclusive circle of the village’s cultural elite.
Starting from the moment she tries to secure a business loan through the local bank, Florence consistently encounters polite but discouraging pressure from most everyone she meets. Though everyone seems perfectly happy with the idea of a new bookshop, no one seems to like the idea of opening it in the so-called “old home.”
Her primary resistance comes from Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), a well-connected woman at the top of Hardborough’s social food chain. Violet claims the home would be better suited as a local arts center but fails to explain why no one has bothered to realize such a development during the many years the home has sat dilapidated and unused in the middle of town.
So Florence forges on anyway, pushing through the financing process, remodeling the building and even moving into the building’s living space before stocking the shelves and opening her doors for business. She takes on a young assistant named Christine (Honor Kneafsey) and begins a correspondence with a local recluse named Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), who quickly gains a fondness for Ray Bradbury, thanks to her recommendations.
All the while, the pressure to close up shop looms over Florence’s shoulders, and “The Bookshop” follows her as she wrestles against the pressures of small town politics.
It’s a mild level of conflict for a quaint and low-key film, and for a time it feels like Florence is meant to be a kindred spirit to Meg Ryan’s character in the 1990s romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail.” But in spite of a strong cast and some appealing performances — adding Nighy to any movie pretty much makes it watchable — “The Bookshop” struggles to gain any real traction.
Part of the problem is that Violet’s motivations are never fully explained or justified. We have to just take it for granted that she’s the antagonist, determined to squash Florence’s dream of owning a bookshop. If she’s supposed to be a metaphor for something, it’s unclear what that is.
There are other opportunities for development, such as a passage where Florence introduces Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial “Lolita” to her shelves — maybe the tension is meant to be a criticism of conservative values? — but “The Bookshop” never pushes that thread very far.
Altogether, the appeal of the cast and a handful of charming moments might be enough for some audiences — and its mild PG-rated content certainly won’t scare anyone off — but overall, “The Bookshop” leaves you feeling that maybe the book was better.
“The Bookshop” is rated PG for some thematic elements, language and brief smoking; running time: 113 minutes.