erik lundegaard

Movie Review: The Bookshop (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The sad ending made me happy but otherwise I don’t get this movie. I don’t get why it was chosen to open the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival, particularly without anyone (director, star, best boy) in attendance. I don’t get how it was nominated for 12 awards, and won three (best film, director and adapted screenplay), at the 32nd annual Goya awards in Madrid, Spain earlier this year. I don’t get what the point of it is. Books are good? People are bad? Bad things happen to good people when bad people force the issue? Sure. Also when bad people don’t force the issue. 

Here’s the story, reduced:

  • Good woman opens bookshop
  • Bad woman machinates against her
  • Bookshop goes out of business

Main thought, afterwards: Do you even need the bad woman? Why not:

  • Good woman opens bookshop
  • Nobody gives a shit
  • Bookshop goes out of business

The Bookshop movie reviewThat’s more indicative of the world, isn’t it? Imagine if more movies followed this trajectory. All of us might be a little wiser, and a little less paranoid.

Don’t fuck with arts center patrons
The good woman is Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), a widow who loves books and wants to share her love by opening a bookshop on the Suffolk coast of England in 1959. What is she doing in Hardborough, Suffolk? I assumed she was there with her husband, who recently died, and she was trying to figure out how to give the rest of her life meaning. Nope. Halfway through, we find out her husband died 16 years earlier in the midst of World War II. So what has she been doing all of this time? And was she already on the Suffolk coast or did she move there? She seems like an outsider. Maybe that’s just the nature of readers.

The bad woman is Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson). Problems arise when Florence buys “The Old House,” a damp property, for her bookshop, because Gamart wanted it for an arts center.

Believe it or not, that’s the conflict. As Florence gets her bookshop up and running, and acquires friends and allies, chiefly the town’s big, reclusive reader, Edmond Brundish (Bill Nighy, who has all the best lines), Violet, from within her upper-middle class walls, and with her own allies, machinates against her. Christine (Honor Kneafsey), the bright, curly-haired girl who helps in the bookshop, and who improbably hasn’t read anything until Florence arrived, is made to work in another bookshop. Something about child labor laws. So Milo North (James Lance), Violet’s smug, closeted confidante, offers his services. For some reason, Florence accepts. Now the fox is in the henhouse.

Truly, though, the big blow for Florence is when Violet gets her nephew, a government official, to pass a law allowing the government to buy “The Old House” from under Florence. Meanwhile, because of Milo’s internal machinations, the building is declared unfit for human occupation—even though Florence lives there—and they don’t pay her anything for it.

Actually, the bigger blow happens earlier. Brundish becomes adviser and friend to Florence. She gets him to read Ray Bradbury, for example, and he advises her on whether or not “Lolita” is a good novel and she should sell it. (It is, she should.) He’s old money, too, in this sleepy town, where you’re either working class or don’t seem to do any work at all, and eventually he comes out of his shell and confronts Violet. Over tea, he tells her what a nasty piece of work she is. Nice! Then, on the walk home, he suffers a heart attack. Bummer! Now Florence has no allies and enemies pounce.

Well, she has one ally left.

A lantern in the first act...
As Florence is leaving Hardborough for good, via boat, defeated, Christine pops up on the pier with the lantern she’s always carried, and, in the distance, Florence sees “The Old House” on fire. It’s Christine’s revenge on Violet's vengeful spirit. And it’s at that point we learn our narrator throughout the film (Julie Christie) was actually Christine, grown up and running her own bookshop. Florence’s legacy lives! Books live! The whole thing is supposed to add a touch of sweet to the bitter.

Except it feels false. If the building goes up in flames just as Florence is leaving, how is she not be blamed, and pursued, and imprisoned? And where is she leaving to by boat— Belgium? In the acclaimed novel written by Penelope Fitzgerald, she leaves by train, bowing her head in shame, according to The New Yorker, “because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.”

That line is key to me. Wasn’t Florence’s bookshop a doomed enterprise from the beginning—even without Violet? And isn’t grown-up Christine’s bookshop a doomed enterprise in the Internet/Amazon age? The movie's focus on Violet covers up the bigger problem: It's less the machinations of a few than the indifference of most. Not to mention our own sad dreams.  

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Posted at 10:31 AM on Fri. May 18, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017  

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