Movie review: ‘The Bookshop’

Brad Keefe
Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

There's a complex relationship between the page and the screen. It's a delicate balance translating a novel to a movie — knowing what to keep, what to extract, what to change.

And while no one would deny the hundreds upon hundreds of great films based on books, how many would have been better if they'd been more willing to stray from the page to do what was right for the screen?

A movie called “The Bookshop” will give you a good indicator of how much regard it holds for the page.

Based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald and adapted by writer/director Isabel Coixet, the film makes a good case for the novel while never quite translating into a cinematic page-turner.

It's 1959 England. Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) is a free-spirited and free-thinking widow who lives in a conservative town on the East Anglian coast.

When Florence decides to follow a passion and open a small neighborhood bookshop, she meets some passive resistance from one of the town's grand dames, Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson).

But Florence powers on, and soon the bookshop nobody knew they wanted becomes a bustling cultural center in the small town.

Florence also develops a kinship with Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), a widower and recluse who discovers authors like Ray Bradbury and Vladimir Nabokov through Florence.

Coixet's reverence for Fitzgerald's prose is evident throughout “The Bookshop,” and that's both a blessing and a curse.

She uses a narrator and has Nighy's Brundish read aloud his letter correspondence to Florence directly into the camera, and it seems clear that much of the dialogue must be nearly verbatim from the novel.

The film has the languid pace of a summer read. It's an enjoyable diversion, but the emotional hook and dramatic arcs never quite come through. At its best and sometimes its worst, “The Bookshop” could most accurately be described as “pleasant.”

And “pleasant” is only disappointing based on the cast assembled.

Mortimer is delightful and almost the singular reason to see this movie. She does more in the soft moments than many actors can manage in entire performances. She's thoughtful and smart and strong — a perfect casting choice.

Nighy also expectedly makes the most of his screen time. I was only slightly disappointed with an underused and, for her, underwhelming, Clarkson.

“The Bookshop” is a movie that makes me want to read the book it's based on, though I can't quite recommend the film.

Opens Friday

2 stars out of 5

“The Bookshop”