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Film

Review: The Bookshop

17 May 2018

The Bookshop is, at its most generous, a film that grants us with the delighting physicality of books, wafting the cinematic equivalent of that musty, antique book-smell into our eyes and ears. The film begins with tanned, antique pages, clasped between soft and hardback covers, horizontally lined jenga-style, as an emphatic voice tells us about our protagonist Florence Green, someone who invariably and unconditionally loves books: “She, more than anything else in the world, loved the moment when you finish a book, and the story keeps playing, like the most vivid dream, in your head…” The film brims with sentimentality and is unabashed in what it tries to achieve, which is quite simply a story, told with anodyne picture-book simplicity, of a bookworm who moves into a town, tries to open a bookstore, and encounters obstacles in her way.

Emily Mortimer as Florence Green is wide-eyed and awkward, and so deeply earnest that when a banker asks her why her bookshop would succeed, she offers: “I like to read.” As chief protagonist, she captures, almost mandatorily, full audience empathy. In one scene where she turns up to a party still new in town, she is mortified in her inability to recognise anyone, or to approach anyone—and we are embarrassed with her.

The obstacles to the success of her bookshop are expressed as a one-sided anti-institutional proclamation, manifested by a boorish banker, a disloyal lawyer, and a nepotistic parliamentarian, all drawing back to the irredeemably and inexplicably evil antagonist Violet Gamart (in a glacial, tight-lipped performance by Patricia Clarkson), who, incentivised by the smallest and oddest reason, wants Florence to fail. Luckily for Florence, she does have people on her side—a frizzy, Hermione-esque, matter-of-fact little girl, and Bill Nighy, who, playing the trope of the mysterious recluse with an enigmatic past, acts most of the time as if he’s sitting on a kidney stone.

The film is unfortunately not without its numerous and unquestionable faults. When slick metrosexual Milo North criticises Florence’s dress as too red, she, flustered, retorts: “It’s not red, it’s a dark maroon,” milking a phrase from a few scenes back, pausing perhaps, for the audience to laugh—but no one does. The ability of this phrase, which is nothing really (funny maybe to a seven-year old), to repeat itself catchphrase-like in not one but two scenes, epitomises the uninspired but eager-to-please mentality of this film.

Each of the small-town characters are impenetrable pop-up caricatures, occupying neat cardboard idiosyncrasies that lack absolutely any depth or character development: think less Agatha Christie, more Cluedo. And the camerawork is not so good. Some shots are genuinely laughable and lead the film to appear, tragically, as if it is taking itself too seriously. The editing is graceless and slapdash: I am convinced that one of the shots in this movie was accidentally put there. But The Bookshop’s faults do not eclipse its enjoyability. There is something to be said of Mercè Paloma’s ’50s costume design and Alfonso de Vilallonga’s music—both luxurious. The movie is simple, sloppy, but quite beautiful, and it is kind of endearing in this way.

The Bookshop is in cinemas May 24.


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