That Isabel Coixet’s latest film, The Bookshop, fails to communicate to the viewer anything about the seductive, persuasive, or spiritual power of literature, is not the worst thing about it. To be fair, this is a hard task – the best elements of cinema are not only very different than the best elements of prose and poetry, but almost at opposites; each’s strengths undermines the other’s. This is why the best book adaptations are rarely adaptations of the best books, and why films about the love of books and literature have such an uphill climb. In that sense, The Bookshop’s failure is ordinary. It’s its other failures – of characterization, direction, and the exploration of its other potentially-rich ideas – that are much more damning.
The eponymous bookshop is the creation of widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), who refurbishes “the old house,” a charming but run-down structure in the heart of a very ye olde beache towne in eastern England. Doing so draws the ire of the town Big Woman (Patricia Clarkson) and the adoration of town Eccentric Elder (Bill Nighy), the latter for obvious reasons and the former for inscrutable ones. What follows is not so much a battle as it is a one-sided quest pitched against a motivated but clueless shopkeep. The very fact that its ending is inevitable makes how it gets there so weird, but more on that a bit later.
The performances in The Bookshop are quite poor. Given that all the actors in it are very good, this demerit redounds strictly on the writing, direction, and editing. In particular, Clarkson’s performance is bizarre; she has the opportunity to really explore a villain as a person without a canned motivation, and yet she seems to have received direction akin to that given to Blue Öyster Cult by Bruce Dickenson, with “Snidely Whiplash” filling the role of “cowbell.” There are also characters whose role, and whose treatment by other characters, is completely inexplicable – that is, until they neatly fill a plot hole (I’m looking at you, James Lance’s Milo, whose performance again compounds the strangeness of the role).
The Bookshop mostly shot like a staid period piece, which is weird since it takes place in 1959 but less weird if you’ve seen Coixet’s previous film, Learning to Drive, which treats modern New York as the setting for a staid period piece. The frequent voiceover narration does nothing for the film, a cardinal sin. But most of the film’s other sins are of the venal or by-omission variety. The Bookshop does some things wrong, for sure, but it mostly spends it time spinning its wheels and studiously avoiding doing anything interesting.
It’s mostly incorrect to say that The Bookshop lacks the courage to follow through on its best ideas – certainly it has more than enough to play with in terms of class power and the social power of literature. For the most part, it doesn’t seem to understand the difference between having an idea and exploring it, between setting up the board and its pieces and actually setting them in motion. Instead, it mostly feels like somebody pedaling in place on a stationary bike who thinks they’re on a bonafide journey. Still, that is giving it a bit too much credit. It analyzes its protagonist’s motivation in the most banal possible way. Its ending hinges on a laughable deus ex machina. Even worse, its bizarre and upsetting coda scrambles any meaning it could’ve had so that it could basically recreate the Disaster Girl meme to try and shoehorn in some karma where none belonged.