If you were to set out to make a parody of mid-century set English chamber pieces, the result would most likely bear a striking resemblance to Isabel Coixet’s (Things I Never Told You, Learning to Drive) The Bookshop. It’s got all the trappings of quintessential Britishness, from hand-crocheted tea cozies and pensive walks along the coast to expertly tailored 1950s garb and a plot founded on a central argument over what truly is the superior art form. An adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s award-winning novel of the same name, The Bookshop scratches a very specific itch for a pleasant period drama, even if it never rises above the call of duty to do so.
It’s 1959, and free-spirited, tenacious widow Florence Green (a reliably divine Emily Mortimer) decides that the best way to overcome the loss of her husband is to move to the obstinately conservative seaside town of Hardborough, England and open a modest bookshop. As inoffensive as it may seem, her decision proves to be a deeply controversial one, as she finds herself an enemy in the town busybody Mrs. Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), who wants to convert Florence’s new home into a community arts center. She soon begins a correspondence with town recluse Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy) when the pair bond over the trauma of loss and a shared affinity for literature.
Ultimately too slight for its own good, The Bookshop fails to establish much in the way of genuine stakes. Threads of conflict peter out before they are given the opportunity to evolve into anything more than minor inconvenience. It’s as if there are sizable chunks missing from the screenplay, in which character motivations are explored and their pursuits are given credence. Our central focus rests on the shoulders of Florence, and while Emily Mortimer’s performance elevates her every exchange, we ultimately know very little about her. Florence’s chief character trait appears to be that she simply likes books. It doesn’t help that the film develops an overreliance on voice-over narration (provided by the incomparable Julie Christie), as the script seems terrified at the prospect of getting its point across without spoon-feeding its audience.
That being said, there is sort of comfort to be found in the film’s simplicity and familiarity. Viewers are treated to a repertoire of talented performers meshing well with the material, even if they never stretch beyond base expectations. The Bookshop succeeds in crafting a safe, cozy bubble of keen period detail, as it flaunts its vintage tweeds and umbrellas and antique lampshades. If the film is remembered at all, it will be for its atmosphere, rather than for its characters or plot development, as it is essentially a feature length postcard depicting 1950s small-town life and English seaside vistas.
While director Isabel Coixet is not without her glimmers of inventiveness (a sequence that finds Bill Nighy speaking his confession letter into the camera as if delivering it to an audience is particularly fanciful), The Bookshop does little more than point its viewer toward more imaginative films. It is based around such a trite ideology that isn’t novel enough to be affecting, spending far too much of its runtime pitching obvious platitudes advocating for the importance of self-authority and the forgotten art of the written word. Sweet and meager, perhaps the film would make for pleasant addition to a rainy afternoon, but it fundamentally feels like a sentimental series of missed opportunities. Coixet is a filmmaker who has constructed thoughtful, textured tales in the past, but here, she doesn’t seem to have much of anything to say.