Film Review: “The Bookshop” — A Closed Book

Reading is treated as a commodity, namedropping literary titles as a way for middlebrow film audiences to feel proud of themselves for being in the know.

The Bookshop, directed by Isabel Coixet. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema and Avon Cinema.

Bill Nighy plays an aging book lover in “The Bookstore.”

By Gerald Peary

Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 short novel, The Bookshop, takes place in 1959 in a small British coastal town “where there was no fish and chips…, no launderette, no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights,” and certainly no bookstore. So a woman living locally, the widowed Mrs. Florence Green, decides to open one. The very odd thing is that Florence has not the slightest interest in literature, or any of the arts. Years ago, she worked in a large bookshop in London, and absorbed enough of the ropes of the business to dare now try it on her own. But she’s not even a reader! Starting up a bookshop just seems something curious to do, and the ancient building which she purchases, The Old House, will be used also for her living space.

Making a film out of The Bookshop is a challenge, as the novel is well written but, though shortlisted for The Booker Prize, just on the edge of dull. Fitzgerald’s ensemble of eccentrics who populate this British village are quaint types in uninteresting ways, including the underdeveloped heroine. There’s a dumb subplot about poltergeists haunting The Old House. And the central conflict is not especially involving. The rich dowager of this town, Violet Gamart, wants to claim the building used for the bookstore for her pet vanity project, a new arts center. Do those reading The Bookshop really care who wins out? I didn’t.

Wisely, there are no ghosts or apparitions on screen in the British film from Spanish screenwriter-director, Isabel Coixet. The movie does improve on the suspense about who ultimately gets the fought-over residence; and Coixet makes far more convincing than in the book the major part of Christine, a 10-year-old girl who comes to work in the bookstore. Fitzgerald’s dialogue for Christine is far beyond any child. The smart talk in the movie, not quite as heady as in the book, is perfect for the intelligent young actress, Honor Kneafsey, cast as precocious Christine. There are worthy performances also by James Lance as Milo Norton, a lazy and complaisant employee of the BBC who seems to forget to commute into London for his job, and the always reliable Patricia Clarkson as the selfish, imperious Violet Gamart. (Clarkson shined as the lead in Coixet’s previous film, Learning to Drive.)

Emily Mortimer is usually a vibrant actress. Here she has little to do as Florence Green except nod with a pained face when people in the village talk condescendingly at her. However, The Bookshop comes alive whenever Bill Nighy is on screen, pale and cadaverous as the town’s most elusive and inscrutable citizen, Edmund Brundish. The film’s two best scenes feature Nighy as Brundish. The first is when he locks horns with Violet Gamart in her home, shouting out and attacking her integrity for scheming to take over Mrs. Green’s bookstore. The second is when he invites Mrs. Green to dine at his musty domicile,  he’s impassioned and kind but also so socially inept that he’s forgotten to set the supper table. They have an affecting almost-romance, yet he’s too old and in faltering health to go beyond clutching her hand to his face. “I would like to have met you at another point in my life,” he declares.

The biggest change from Penelope Fitzgerald is a cheat. Non-reading Florence is made over, and much sentimentalized, as a devotee of literature. “I love reading,” she declares as we see her, with schmaltzy music, sitting by the water caught up in a book. In Fitzgerald’s book, she buys 250 copies of scandalous Lolita for her store because she’s been assured by others that it’s a good book. Only in the movie, does Florence actually read Nabokov, deep into the night in bed. Only in the movie does she run her hand with feeling over books in her store. Only in the movie does she shower Mr. Brundish with Ray Bradbury books and the poetry of Philip Larkin, or does she try to turn little Christine into a bookworm my coaxing the girl to read A High Wind in Jamaica. Only in the movie does she recall of her late husband how they had bonded over Eliot, Thackeray, Pepys.

What’s wrong with a movie which encourages reading, you say? Because it’s treated as a commodity, namedropping literary titles as a way for middlebrow film audiences to feel proud of themselves for being in the know. The movie is leaden with such mushy lines in voiceover as “She loved the moment when you finished a book, and the story keeps playing like a vivid dream in your head” and “What she possessed deep down was what no one could take away from her, and this was her love of books” and “No one ever feels alone in a bookstore.” It’s enough to turn you to network TV.

Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. He is currently at work co-directing with Amy Geller a feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West.


  1. Jackie Sand on September 1, 2018 at 11:24 am

    Thanks for this clear review where I definitely hear your voice. You, a true reader would definitely be stung by the cheesy comments. Can’t wait to hear and read more from you.

    • Gerald Peary on September 1, 2018 at 11:59 am

      Thanks, Jackie!

  2. Alumno deVerum on September 17, 2018 at 11:04 pm

    This review makes me wonder if the author actually saw the movie. For instance saying the lead character wasn’t a reader when she clearly said she “loves reading” and is shown reading. If this is typical of the reviewer I would really have to question his competence regardless of his credentials

    • Gerald Peary on September 18, 2018 at 9:45 am

      I wonder if the person above read my review, and I have to judge his/her competence as a literate person. I distinctly say that in the NOVEL, she’s not a reader, and that in THE FILM she is a reader. It’s dismaying that I need to explain the obvious: read the review!!!!!!!!!~

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