Audrey Kupferberg: The Bookshop

Sep 20, 2018

THE BOOKSHOP is a new film that tells the story of Florence Green, a young widow living in an East Anglian village in 1959.   It is based on a novel from the 1970s by award-winning British author Penelope Fitzgerald, and adapted for the screen, as well as directed, by Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet.

THE BOOKSHOP is a small film that won’t attract American moviegoers in a big way.  Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, and Patricia Clarkson star.  With the exception of Clarkson, the stars are better known in Britain than here.  While all three are commanding actors, none are really boxoffice draws.

This film will come and go in theaters fairly quickly. To date, the boxoffice in the United States hasn’t reached one million dollars. I consider this movie a rare flower that most will pass by, but there are those who will appreciate THE BOOKSHOP, so I call your attention to its finer points.

It’s such a quiet film.  That’s the first thing that struck me about it.  I really like quiet films, films that unfold at an easy-going pace and yet have solid ideas to communicate.  The story of THE BOOKSHOP is uncomplicated; a young widow decides to buy an old dilapidated building and open a bookshop in a village that has no bookshop.  Once she closes a deal with the local bank to buy the building, the village hard-hearted rich-bitch decides she absolutely has to have that space for an arts center.  By the end of the movie, by getting to know a few of the villagers and experiencing their interactions with Florence, the audience comes to know the goodness of the human soul and the downright mean spiritedness of some people.  That’s the plot--simple in so many ways and yet so focused on and revealing of the range of individuals’ characters.

I believe this could have been a stronger film.  Coixet doesn’t give away enough about the motivation of the characters.  Why does Florence insist on making her home and business in that particular broken-down building?  Why does the wealthy witch insist on having that building as her arts center?  Why does one man burn books and book covers in his fireplace instead of logs?  Why exactly does another man betray her by a traitorous act? 

THE BOOKSHOP is an example of a movie that one watches, and then one must read the novel on which it is based in order to get the full story.  Adapting a novel for the screen should not be a matter of editing the why and how out of the original work. Viewers should need to know nothing beyond the contents of a film’s script to be contented with the story told to them.

Even so, THE BOOK SHOP features a handful of colorful characters who are acted by incredibly fine thespians.  It has something interesting to say about the kindness of some and the spitefulness of others.  This movie also gives viewers a sense of the post-war climate of England as it grows culturally for many from conformist to modern.  There aren’t enough examples of intelligent films that focus on human nature.  Among the current crop of releases, THE BOOKSHOP is a treat – maybe not the whole ice-cream sundae but certainly a popsicle on a hot summer’s day.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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