Think of director Lasse Hallstrom’s 2000 film Chocolat starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. Remove all the charm, romance and mythical elements, and you’ll likely be left with something that resembles The Bookshop, a disappointing and dull period drama that, for whatever reason, was named the Best Picture at the Goya Awards (Spain’s version of the Oscars) earlier this year.
Although it might be award-worthy in some circles, The Bookshop is a strangely generic and frustratingly paced story that never comes alive. The film is based on the 1978 novel of the same name by late English writer Penelope Fitzgerald (The Blue Flower) and adapted for the screen and directed by Isabel Coixet (Learning to Drive). It follows widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) as she battles a wave of opinionated locals when she decides to open a bookstore in her small Suffolk town in 1959.
Immediately after buying the property known around town as the Old House, Florence begins to receive pushback from the townsfolk, one of whom admits that no one he knows reads much. Her most ardent detractor, Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), a devious socialite, wants Florence to rethink her plans and convert the Old House into an arts center (“Chamber music in summer, lectures in winter,” she says condescendingly).
Florence takes her criticism in stride and opens the shop anyway, hiring a young girl (Honor Kneasfsey) to assist her and connecting with Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), a wealthy and supportive recluse who is her best customer, despite choosing to get his reading material delivered to him rather than go into the shop. When Florence sends him a copy of Fahrenheit 451, he sends back a note that requests “more books by Ray Bradbury.”
While the relationship between Florence and Edmund is the most appealing of the movie, none of the other secondary characters or storylines are given time to flourish into a full narrative. Coixet wants audiences to inhabit the life of Florence and feel what it’s like to make an impression on people’s lives through her passion for literature. But as a character, she is too fragile to believe she can take on the entire town alone.
Even when Coixet introduces some interesting conflict (Florence starts to sell Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s provocative book Lolita in her store and goes as far as featuring it in a window display), nothing notable or inspiring comes out of the controversy. As the sumptuous chocolate candies in Chocolat reveal suppressed feelings, one might wonder what a book like Lolita would do to their modest town. Like with everything else in The Bookshop, however, Coixet just skims over the idea and turns the page.