“Watching this film was like reading a good book”, a friend once said to me as we were coming out of a screening. “So, it was not like watching a film?”, I replied. When reviewing a film adapted from a literary work, I seldom have read the book before seeing the film. My opinion of the film is solely based on the film’s quality. A film is not a novel, there is no reason why they should be judged by the same standards. The bookshop, Isabel Coixet’s adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s popular 1978 novel, is set in 1959 in the fictional coastal town of Hardborough, Suffolk. Recently widowed Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) comes to town to open a bookshop in the Old house. Invited to a small reception given by Mrs. Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), Florence is told by Mrs. Gamart that she cannot open a bookshop. According to Gamart, nobody reads in Hardborough, except the reclusive Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy), who lives in the house at the top of the hill. And Gamart plans to open an arts centre in the Old house. Despite the warnings, Florence opens the shop. To assist her she hires Christine (the excellent Honor Kneafsey), a young feisty girl. Mr. Brundish starts writing letters asking Florence to send him books she thinks he might enjoy. She sends Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. He likes it and wants to read more from Bradbury. Then she sends Mr. Brundish Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita to read, asking him if she should order more. The widow display featuring the scandalous book creates a small scandal. And it seems that everyone in town is conspiring against Florence and the bookshop, even people she thought were her friends. Meanwhile, Florence and Mr. Brundish meet and become friends, and even more. He vows to fight to keep the bookshop open. For the first quarter of the film there is a female narrator, that very literary device, telling us what the characters are feeling, what they are doing and why. A good film with a good screenplay does not need and should not have a narrator. (There are exceptions: Martin Scorcese’s The age of innocence) If there has to be one, it must be used with moderation. For a while you thought the whole film would be like that. I was happy when the narration was dropped. It almost seems as if this is based on a children’s novel. In fact Penelope Fitzgerald’s The bookshop is very thin (about 118 pages). The evil Mrs. Violet Gamart, as played by a scene stealing Patricia Clarkson, is a good example of apparent civility. impeccably dressed, always smiling, she never raises her voice. Why would she? She knows that she has complete control and that she’s going to win. Coixet is using a lot of bright colors in the costumes or in the sets. It reverts back to a more innocent time, well at least it had the appearance of innocence. The film is too artificial to be taken seriously and to be believable. And there is that narrator that still irks me. Whatever the reasons. Only for those who like watching films as if they were reading books.
Based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald