“The Bookshop,” based on the 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, is a far more somber, measured outing than its quaint and cozy title may at first imply.
Within its staid snapshot of aspiration versus tradition in small-town, postwar England, lies a profoundly resonant parable about power, words and suppression. That the 1959-set film’s erstwhile themes prove so vital at this unusually fraught point in time speaks volumes.
Although it’s anchored by a deeply felt performance by the wonderful Emily Mortimer, with a marvelous supporting turn by the always-welcome Bill Nighy, the film, scripted and directed by Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet (“Elegy,” “Learning to Drive”), is at times a bit too mustily mounted and told to keep us as fully immersed as we might like.
Mortimer plays Florence Green, an idealistic, quietly resolute widow whose beloved soldier husband died 16 years ago in World War II. Perhaps to honor his memory (they met in a bookshop) as well as her love of literature, Florence decides to open a bookstore in the lovely, if rather hermetic and gossipy coastal community of Hardborough. (Northern Ireland subbed for the fictional English locale).
But that’s easier said than done as Florence encounters a series of legal, financial and societal obstacles before and, more importantly, after she turns a dank, rundown structure known as the Old House into an inviting, nicely stocked little book emporium and make-do home.
For Florence, the more local opposition she meets, the more she digs in her sensible heels. And, for awhile at least, she makes a go of the store with the part-time help of feisty local schoolgirl Christine (Honor Kneafsey), who although not as yet a fan of reading, totally has Florence’s back.
Another of her great supporters is the reclusive Edmund Brundish (Nighy), a seemingly well-off widower and bibliophile pleased there will finally be a more proximate way to quench his literary thirst. That is, if the store can deliver.
Florence and the erudite Brundish develop an increasingly warm and appreciative relationship via letters and, later, in person, as the bookseller introduces him to such key tomes of the times as “Fahrenheit 451” and, more problematically, “Lolita.” The initial face-to-face between these two longing souls is one of the film’s most well-realized moments.
The chief thorn in Florence’s side, however, is Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), a wealthy, delicately ruthless grand dame who, for reasons that have more to do with power than intellectual fervor, claims that she wants to turn the Old House into an arts center — and will stop at nothing to have her way.
If Violet may not be the most well-developed character, often more symbolic and predictable than truly flesh-and-blood (the deft Clarkson tries, but it’s a tough role to nail), she’s still a chilling reminder of the kind of status-, and status quo-, seeking prigs who, to this day, lie in wait to derail smart, independent thinkers like Florence.
Milo (James Lance), a foppish ne’er-do-well who befriends Florence with one hand and undermines her with the other, also factors in with mixed results, an amusingly repellent hanger-on whose base motives are never all that clear.
Coixet’s inclusion of voice-over may hark back to the novel but it can often feel superfluous, telling us what we either already are or should be seeing. That it’s delivered with such finesse by the great Julie Christie (who starred in the 1966 film version of “Fahrenheit 451” — coincidence or not?) is a plus, particularly when it stirringly pays off in the end.
Ultimately, despite its flaws, the film possesses such a clear passion and advocacy for writing, knowledge and personal expression that it emerges as a largely worthy and poignant accomplishment, especially given the vanishing state these days of that beloved institution known as the bookshop.
Rated: PG, for some thematic elements, language, and brief smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 24, the Landmark, West Los Angeles