Featuring an old-fashioned bookstore, a picturesque English seaside setting and Bill Nighy playing a melancholy misanthrope, “The Bookshop” contains enjoyable elements. But unlike the literature its heroine extols, the film, opening at the Clay in The City, delivers nothing deeply affecting, challenging or extraordinary.
Directed and written by Isabel Coixet, adapting Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, the 1959-set drama transpires in a change-resistant Suffolk village that is home to breezy sea air, stuffy attitudes and natives whose accents suggest the entire British map. (Coixet isn’t Ken Loach; the picture she paints often seems less regional than fabular.)
Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a 40ish widowed modern-thinking bookworm, buys the long-vacant, run-down Old House and opens a bookstore there. Antagonism arises from Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), the arts patron who rules the town’s social scene and has her own plan for the property. Vicious beneath her veneer of politeness, Violet determines to evict Florence.
Florence finds an ally and friend, with romantic undertones, in Mr. Brundish (Nighy), an affluent recluse and avid reader who detests people. Brundish writes Florence a letter asking her to ship him some good books. The volumes she sends include “Fahrenheit 451,” which he likes, and “Lolita,” on which Florence seeks his advice. Should she sell Nabokov’s controversial novel in her shop? Yes, Brundish replies.
A schoolgirl named Christine (Honor Kneafsey), who works part-time for Florence, and a pest named Milo (James Lance), whose presence wastes screen time, complete the primary supporting cast.
Coixet (“Elegy,” “Learning to Drive”) excels at depicting meaningful relationships between unlikely souls; Mortimer’s Florence, who is genuine as a quietly determined underdog, and Nighy’s beautifully downbeat, deadpan Brundish, in whom a heart, stirred by Florence, still beats, indeed make for a splendid pair.
Unfortunately, though, the two meet only twice, and Coixet’s screenplay more often focuses, with duller results, on the anti-Florence war Violet wages. While Coixet addresses other themes — small-town power-mongering, British politesse, old versus new money and thinking and the fate of bookstores — she merely skims the surface when doing so.
Most frustratingly missing is an emotional impact.
The supposed uproar that occurs over Florence’s “Lolita” display barely registers. We see Florence fondly stroking books as she places them on shelves, but not once does she talk in detail about a book she loves. As a result, she doesn’t convey her passion resonantly.
Sad events that befall the most likable characters don’t move us like they should.
Neither a dud nor a cinematic page-turner, the movie ultimately proves too mild and ordinary to satisfy beyond the level of a passable rainy-day matinee. A superior outing might be to visit a favorite still-standing local bookstore.
Two and a half stars
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson, James Lance
Written and directed by: Isabel Coixet
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes