Review / ‘The Bookshop’ (PG) ****

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Emily Mortimer as Florence Green in “The Bookshop”.

EVEN film reviewers are entitled to have favourites.

And for her gently powerful film about subtle conflict in a small English town in 1959, Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet has cast two of my favourite actors in pivotal roles.

The story adapts a novel by Penelope Fitzgerald canvassing a choice selection of social issues provoked by the decision of Florence (Emily Mortimer), 16 years a widow, to buy an old (yet not too decrepit) house and live there using the ground floor as a bookshop.

Surely that innocent decision should distress nobody. But a small community can be home to a social climber with a private agenda, connections to help her fulfil it and a conviction that the community wants it.

Violet Gamart is married to a retired military man whom she dominates with a gentle insistence. Don’t assume that knowing this about her points to a creative cliché. Violet, with bigger fish to fry, sees Florence’s handsome old house as the ideal home for a cultural centre. She has money, patience and well-placed connections.

So now you know who’s the villain. Patricia Clarkson plays her with a sweet steeliness masking a suppressed frustration that may be sexual or political or both. Whichever it is confirms her as an actress whose name on a cast list makes any film a must for connoisseurs of great acting. Hated the character, loved the actress, that’s where I stand.

My other favourite is Bill Nighy playing Edmund Brundish, landowner, hermit, unable to come to terms with the long-ago loss of his wife. The screenplay gives him a lovely set of quirky mannerisms to play with. And unbeknown to anybody, including Florence and Violet, a steeliness that when forced to the surface brooks no opposition. It’s a relatively small role but watching him is a delight.

Florence becomes his saviour when she sends him two books to jolt him out of his self-imposed solitude. One is “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. The other is the collected poems of Philip Larkin. In this I confess to a connection. My cousin Gaynor is married to Larkin’s publisher who introduced me to Larkin’s work. Who, having met, laughed at and pondered it, can forget “This be the verse”?

Books gently drive this film with an accumulation of emotional pressures that confound its dramatic power. Perhaps its most important attribute is its shunning of cliché, a quality to which too many movies fail to aspire, much less achieve.

It comes down to what small communities often lack without being aware of it. That’s my situation, too. When “A Suitable Book” opened its doors I rejoiced. When it sank beneath floodwaters, I like many others in and beyond the village mourned. Selling books is a perilous trade at the best of times.

 

At Palace Electric, Dendy and Capitol 6

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Dougal Macdonald
“CityNews” film reviewer

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