Shelf Indulgence

The Bookshop (Isabel Coixet, 2017)

Sometimes the gun over the fireplace in Act One is a paraffin heater.

This film works really hard not to be liked. It’s set in and around a bookshop in a small Suffolk village set up by widowed Emily Mortimer, and everybody loves a bookshop. Well, not everybody, because Patricia Clarkson, channelling Glen Close as Cruella de Vil, would rather have an arts centre, for reasons which need not detain us and clearly don’t detain the film. Meanwhile, Bill Nighy, who increasingly leads me to poor viewing choices, is a misanthropic widower who likes books and likes Emily Mortimer. In particular, in turns out he likes Ray Bradbury.

What’s not to like?

The film is sharp on the gossip and surveillance of the small village, with the constant patronisation of Mortimer by almost everyone, including the bank manager, the solicitor, the fish monger and so on, although you may wonder whether a woman would be able to get a bank loan in the late-1950s. Perhaps she has a legacy from her dead husband, who died more than a decade ago? And frankly, would a village that small really support a bookshop even without enemy action?

Of course, a copy of Lolita would be hot property, but 250 copies seems optimistic. Could they have been imported in such numbers rather than seized? Why is there no police raid?

And one can’t help but feel those are odd covers for Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, the latter seeming to be an American Bantam hardback. Did Larkin have a thick collected poems in the late 1950s, what with having only two books out…

I think there is an explanation, but it puts us deep into The Usual Suspects territory.

The director, Coixet, doesn’t seem to trust her actors, since she’s lumbered the film with a voiceover that may pay off at the end with a revelation that could have been done visually and takes away from the film otherwise. Okay, it may be Julie Christie, but I’m not convinced we’re told anything new by it. And there’s plenty we don’t know.

And on the topic of lumbering, the film could have been shortened by a good twenty minutes without so many scenery fillers — the estuary, trees, a meadow — which are not as pretty as they might be and slow down what might already be a slow film.

There are enough decent lines to lift the script and the three central performances are strong, even if they appear to be in separate films. (Nighy communicates initially to camera, as if he could make it to Spain for filming but not Northern Ireland.) And at times Honor Kneafsey as her young assistant steals the film.

But there is something overall that does not add up and I think it’s the direction. A couple of times the picture is oddly framed, and then the camera moves a centimetre or so upwards, recentring although the characters have not moved. But at least we get to see a copy of Dandelion Wine?

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