Modern-day bookstore owners may be struggling to stay afloat in the age of Amazon and e-readers, but they don’t have to battle the more deceptively cloaked threat of quaint English conservatism that the 1950s heroine of “The Bookshop” faces with an upper lip of pure cast iron. In picking Penelope Fitzgerald’s slim but subtly potent 1978 novel for screen treatment, internationally inclined Spanish helmer Isabel Coixet (“Elegy,” “Learning to Drive”) once more shows impeccable taste in material, but this is a frustratingly patchy adaptation, in which some of Fitzgerald’s shrewdest observations on the savage politics and politesse of supposedly tranquil English village life get a little bit lost in the Europudding. A fine, sensitive leading turn from Emily Mortimer helps shore up these quiet, lightly dust-covered proceedings, but can’t quite put “The Bookshop” in the black.
Internationally premiering as a special gala at the Berlin Film Festival, “The Bookshop” has already proven a substantial box-office hit in Spain, where it also recently took top honors at the Goya Awards. But it’s hard to say how the film will fare elsewhere, particularly on semi-home turf in the U.K., where audiences may be quicker to pick up on the slight inauthenticity of Coixet’s vision of provincial England, in which everything from the accents to the teatime rituals feels off by a degree or two. Distributors will understandably market “The Bookshop” to the silver-dollar crowd that shows up for such laid-back comfort viewing as “Ladies in Lavender” or “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” but the film is something of a bait-and-switch: What begins as a genteel portrait of village quirkery reveals a darker, sadder heart, and a brittle wariness of human nature, as it goes along.
Credit Coixet, then, for honoring the spirit of Fitzgerald’s adroit, softly cynical prose, if not its every social nuance. Her adaptation is pretty true to the letter of the novel, too, with substantial extracts of it preserved in a voiceover that remains ambiguous in provenance for much of the film. Calling on Julie Christie to deliver it is one of the film’s best creative decisions, as her dry, wistful but faintly acerbic tone undercuts the potential coziness of the enterprise, but “The Bookshop” still leans too heavily on her narration in many a scene where clean visual storytelling would do the trick.
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After all, it’s in unspoken territory where most of the tension of this story lies, beneath the courteous nods, smiles and small-talk exchanges that predominate in the pretty seaside community of Hardborough, Suffolk in 1957. (The more tousled Irish coastline stands in for it here, and the subtle difference is felt.) It’s a world of passive-aggressive rules and class barriers hidden in well-trimmed hedges, as humble but headstrong widow Florence Green (Mortimer) soon learns when she moves there, having bought a decaying property — simply named The Old House — that she intends to convert into the town’s first bookstore.
It’s a worthy aim, and on the surface, of course, Florence’s new fellow villagers profess to be delighted by the idea — even if most of them confess to having little interest in reading. But local queen bee Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson, dressed in yards of beige taffeta and a permanent tight smile) announces herself — with utmost civility, naturally — as an opponent to the cause when she airily muses to Florence that perhaps the space could better be used as a local arts center.
Battle lines are drawn, and allies are found: in Florence’s case, in her gradual bond with prickly schoolgirl Christine (Honor Kneafsey), whom she hires as a part-time assistant, and in an initially epistolary relationship with Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy), a wifeless, literature-loving recluse who both respects the intellectual enlightenment she’s trying to bring to Hardborough while shrugging it off as a lost cause. “They won’t understand it,” he observes of her book selection, which includes Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” “But that’s all for the best — understanding makes the mind lazy.”
Violet, for her part, appears to have as little passion for the arts she champions as she does for books, but that’s beside the point: The two women’s tussle over a single dilapidated, damp-afflicted property is really a larger fight for the soul of the town. What’s less consistently clear in Coixet’s treatment, which irons out most the story’s regional specifics, is what Florence and Violet each stand for in a sociopolitical sense. Fitzgerald’s story ruefully pits conservative, heritage-fixated nostalgia against liberal progressiveness, making “The Bookshop” a particularly apt text to revisit in the ugly age of Brexit, but that subtext runs hot and cold on screen. It’s most present and effective in the scenes between Florence and Brundish, which are also the film’s most poignant overall — played delicately by Mortimer and Nighy as the faintest whisper of a romance, muffled and stiffened by layers of English tweed.
Elsewhere, however, the wildly uneven contributions of the supporting ensemble — including the plummily villainous Clarkson, unusually off-key in her third Coixet collaboration — make it hard to gauge the character of the community, with its odd, unsorted array of accents, backgrounds and uniformly laundered-looking outfits. The film’s aesthetic is equally hard to pin down, with cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu alternating between pastoral naturalism and ominously theatrical exterior lighting, while Alfonso de Vilallonga’s thick, string-heavy score doesn’t have quite as much faith in the expressive power of words as Coixet’s screenplay does. A loving, ambitious stab at a well-chosen text that it nonetheless can’t fully lift from the page, “The Bookshop” perhaps makes the case for printed matter in more ways than it intends.