The Bookshop could be one of the most understated films ever made about thoroughly malicious people. The movie just seems to sit patiently with people talking quietly or saying nothing at all, at times barely moving. The camera itself remains placid, as it observes with little comment. You wonder what’s going on, but slowly the picture reveals itself, and at that deliberate pace unfolds a story of genuine malevolence. Except for a youngish woman, an oldish man and a frizzy haired little girl, these are some of the worst people ever to inhabit a movie – and there’s not a single gunshot or knifing; no one buys, sells or uses drugs. There’s not even a car chase, and there can’t be more than three or four cars in the whole movie. And one boat.
The Bookshop takes place in a perfectly picturesque village on the south-east coast of England. Old stone buildings, narrow streets, lots of greenery and flowers, and, of course, the sea. It’s 1959. Florence Greene (Emily Mortimer) loves books and decides to open a bookshop in an old, and long unused building in the village. She gets a bank loan; she talks up the shop at a party given by the haughty grand dame of the village, Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), and even to the ferryman. Oddly, just about everyone tries to talk Florence out of the idea.
Florence is a gentle woman who loves books and hopes to make them available to the locals. She takes a few chances – it’s got to be a stretch when she orders 250 copies of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, not just for the kind of people who live in the village, but it’s hard to imagine 250 people total within reach, much less book buyers who will go for that book. At its height, the shop seems so well-stocked, you must wonder who’s doing all that reading. But the shop is lovely and comfortable. It’s the bookshop of your dreams.
But town dowager Violet Gamart does not want a bookshop in that place. She wants her art center and she wants it in the very building where Florence both lives and runs her shop. Violet puts up a subtle but dreadfully insistent opposition. It’s a falsely soft version of time big city politics. A building inspector finds serious problems; some child labor questions arise about the kid who helps after school. And there’s a traitor who at first looks like an annoying but harmless cad and turns out much worse.
And that’s how The Bookshop works. No one is what they seem, and it takes a while for both Florence and the audience to make their way through the layers of indirect language and subtle gestures to find the nastiness within. Maybe it’s because director Isabel Coixet was born in Spain and now works in England that she has an outsider’s take on the downside of English politeness. At any rate, once you see where the film is going, the slow unpeeling becomes delightful.
The movie depends on actors who can handle that conflict of gracious appearance and vicious fraud. Bill Nighy plays Edmund Brundish, a rich old recluse in the village who reads and strikes up a sweet friendship with Florence. He doesn’t like Violet Gamart. The confrontation between Nighy and Patricia Clarkson is a wonder of performance that’s like fencing. The two of them hint and feint. They’re nearly still but for their eyes and understated shifts in their postures, as they sit and discuss not just the bookstore, but probably the past 50 years of barely hidden hatred for one another. The two old codgers are masters of weaponized social proprieties. It’s a thrill to watch.
To say the least, The Bookshop comes in under the radar. But that’s good. It’s a pleasure to let the film sneak up on you until you finally realize how much it has to show. And it ends just as it should.