Prolific Barcelona-born director Isabel Coixet is best-known for her diverse and often dark English-language dramas (Learning To Drive, Elegy, My Life Without Me), and her latest is a period piece with more fine performances and an obvious but nevertheless very pleasing pro-reading message.
Written by Coixet as drawn from Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel (which can be glimpsed on a shelf at the end), this opens in 1959 with widow and literature lover Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a resident of Hardborough, Suffolk, deciding to pursue her dream of opening a bookshop. Much of this information is supplied by a narrator who isn’t revealed until the final credits but just in case it drives you mad waiting for the revelation then here’s a little spoiler: it’s Julie Christie.
Florence takes out a loan and is patronised, infantilised and sneered at by many locals, but she has a few allies, including nice Mr. Raven (Michael Fitzgerald) and bright young Christine (Honor Kneafsey), who becomes her assistant. But when she upsets the rich and influential Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson from Learning To Drive), she needs all the friends she can find.
One of these, of course, turns out to be the reclusive and supposedly misanthropic Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), who’s glimpsed early on burning key works by Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde but still loves books, and is won over by Florence when she recommends he read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. This leads to a series of sensually-charged scenes where Florence and Edmund meet and are quietly taken with each other, and you’re left pondering that age-old question: will they or won’t they? And will they or won’t they even though Edmund is about 25 years older than Florence, and awfully pinched, repressed and English?
This central pairing is a pretty sweet one, but this is actually more about the fairly despicable Violet, a woman used to getting her own way and not afraid to ruin anyone who dares challenge her. Clarkson plays her subtly so that she doesn’t become a stereotype villain (or some Montgomery Burns figure), and remains an awfully credible ruling-class monster.
With its references to Bradbury, a subplot about the shop daring to stock the scandalous Lolita and endless sequences where characters are seen reading (and adoring) actual books, this certainly wants to encourage audiences to do just the same.
Rated M. The Bookshop is in cinemas now.