Spanish director Isabel Coixet (The Secret Life of Words and Learning to Drive) adapts Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel with a great cast in a ho-hum film. It’s 1959 in the fictional English seaside town of Hardborough. Spirited widow Florence (a mischievous Emily Mortimer) turns a dilapidated old house into a bookshop. Despite the opposition of local shopkeepers, led by busy-body Mrs Gamart (brought to obnoxious life by Patricia Clarkson), the bookshop thrives. Amongst the customers is Edmund (Bill Nighy in top mournful form), an avid reader and no fan of the buttoned-up community in which he lives. It’s not long before Ed and Flo develop a friendship, communicated largely via the books she recommends him.
Well-crafted and performed, The Bookshop boasts a fine supporting cast playing a host of eccentric characters, and some beautiful cinematography, contrasting the bleak town with the vibrancy of the bookshop’s shelves. A slow and steady study of the passive-aggressive bullying tactics of “polite” society, reminiscent of Joanne Harris’ novel (and Lasse Hallström’s subsequent movie) Chocolat, but lacking its adult-fairy-tale magic. Scenes in which blinkered Brits are awakened by the “shocking” novels, from Lolita to Fahrenheit 451, entertain, but like the film’s core critique of social affectation as a mask for meanness beneath, it feels odd in a movie grounded in reality rather than allegorical fantasy.
Measured and thoughtful, yet emotionally unengaging, it’s a meandering tale made enjoyable largely by the performances of its three lead actors.