This seemingly stuffy Brit flick hides heart and grit

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Bookshop
Roxy Theatre

Opens August 24
4 out of 5

Traditional cinema can be as transformative as the most audacious avant garde “experience”. The Bookshop is a great example: it’s conventional but also a delight.

This charming, old-fashioned drama combines literary dialogue, impeccable production design and a well-calibrated cast. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Penelope Fitzgerald (The Blue Flower), the film takes place in 1959 in the fictitious coastal town of Hardborough, where Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) arrives with the intention of opening a bookstore.

The local hoi-polloi is not thrilled with the outsider’s plans, particularly Violet Gamart (the imperious Patricia Clarkson), the town’s queen bee. Violet wants to open an “art center” in the same location, as a symbol of status more than a sign of actual interest in the community.

Initially oblivious to having rubbed a well-connected member of Hardborough’s elite the wrong way, it’s business as usual for Florence. She starts an epistolary friendship with Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy), a well-read, reclusive man who’s impressed with the entrepreneur’s moxie and her taste in books. Florence introduces him to Ray Bradbury and Nabokov, and Brundish reciprocates with strategic advice.

As their friendship blossoms, nefarious, petty forces conspire to pull the rug from under Florence’s feet. Violet and her cohorts attack the newcomer financially, legally, and emotionally with detached viciousness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lolita becomes a catalyst for conflict.

Quite possibly director Isabel Coixet’s finest work, The Bookshop is a showcase for the perennially underrated Nighy and Mortimer. They can deliver lines like “understanding makes the mind lazy” and it sounds like an everyday conversation. The film also fits with the #metoo movement, but it’s too earnest to be considered opportunistic.

The Bookshop celebrates being a positive influence on a young mind. The story’s ending doesn’t matter much when a new beginning has been triggered, however unwittingly.

My only holdup was the voiceover, normally a sign of lazy screenwriting. Trust me here, the payoff justifies it plenty. If nothing else, you’ll leave the theatre remembering this rule: the best biographies are about good people, the best novels are about the bad.