Often, when a film asks you to suspend your disbelief, it’s asking that you believe in a fairy tale, or that love conquers all, or even that John Travolta’s hairline is natural. This is why it’s so odd that the big buy-in the audience must make in The Bookshop is that a quaint, seaside British village would not want a bookshop.
Based on a novel of the same title by Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop mainly follows Florence (Emily Mortimer) on her quest to open a bookshop. The not terribly old widow has had a lifelong obsession with books, and even worked at a shop in her younger days. She bumps up against the expected red tape from the bank and her solicitor, but is taken aback when the local busybody tells her to back down from her plans to open the shop. Violet (Patricia Clarkson, who had previously worked with director Isabel Coixet on 2014’s Learning to Drive) wants the building that the bookshop resides in to be a community art center, even though she has let the space remain vacant for decades and she doesn’t actually own it. To add intrigue to the story, the wealthy local hermit, Edmund (Bill Nighy), happens to be the town’s only voracious reader, and his isolating behavior means that all communication with Florence regarding books must be in written correspondence.
I can only imagine that the novel includes far more plot and character development, as both are lacking in the rushed film. This leads to a little confusion, as character motivations are unclear. For example, how can Florence feel as though the whole town is on Violet’s side when her business is always bustling and filled with customers? And how can Violet claim so much of a hold over the politics of the town when it’s emphasized that she’s barely ever there? These inconsistencies beg a buy-in from the audience, though they don’t really earn our forgiveness.
The one bright point in the film’s blandness is Edmund and Florence’s relationship. As a bibliophile myself, seeing them each get excited about books and discover new authors and titles together is the one aspect of The Bookshop that makes perfect sense. I believe that they truly adore these books. And I believe them when they just want someone else to chat about books with. Seeing Edmund discover Ray Bradbury and Florence decide if Lolita is too spicy for their sleepy village is a passion that rings true on screen. I only wish that this excitement was the focus of the movie.
The Bookshop shows that while literature can be a ray of sunshine in our dull lives, perhaps it would have been better if this one remained off-screen.