Isabel Coixet has always been a talented filmmaker, making understated drama films dealing with issues like existentialism and inner turmoil to great aplomb. Although there have been some highs in her filmography like My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words (both starring the talented actress/director Sarah Polley), her last few films have signaled a steady decline in quality.
Since 2009’s beautiful yet empty Maps of the Sounds of Tokyo, her films have ranged from emotionally resonant to thematically lightweight. Now, we have her latest film, The Bookshop, which is adapted from an acclaimed novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald. With its talented cast and strong source material, will it get Coixet out of her slump?
Emily Mortimer stars as Florence Green, a widow who has just decided to put her turmoils behind her and risk everything to open up a bookshop; the first of its kind in the sleepy seaside town of Hardborough, England. But this seemingly innocent decision causes quite a stir in the town, which brings her fierce enemies: she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers and also crosses Mrs. Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), Harborough’s alpha who is a wannabe prominent of the local arts scene.
Is The Bookshop a stellar film that gets Coixet out of her slump? Well… as with all of Coixet’s films, the cinematography, courtesy of regular cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu, is striking to look at. The musical score by Alfonso de Vilallonga is quite effective when utilized at the right moments.
And last but not least, the standout performance is from Honor Kneafsey. She struggles a little bit in the first act but manages to find the perfect balance in conveying maturity and naivety, as Christine. With her performance here and her work in the murder mystery film Crooked House, her career looks like it could go on to greener pastures.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that The Bookshop lands with a loud thud. Despite the fact that the film is adapted from acclaimed source material, the characters are as thin as the pages they’re written on. Florence wants to start a bookshop because she likes books and the film never develops the character nor the motivation beyond that. And the same goes for Mrs. Gamart, who wants to use the foundation of the bookshop to build an art center. Mustache-twirling ensues.
The acting would’ve given the characters and the film much-needed vitality but they’re all quite lifeless. Mortimer is okay as Florence, but her performance confuses inner emoting with inactivity. Nighy gets in a few chortles but he looks like he’s reprising his role as a zombie in Shaun of the Dead. His performance doesn’t come off as subtle, it comes off as sedated. Clarkson, who’s shown acerbity like a professional in many films, most recently in Sally Potter’s The Party, is unfortunately quite de-fanged here.
It certainly doesn’t help the actors that the storytelling is all over the place, led by (or led off?) by Coixet’s loose direction, which goes into montages of misery without any character investment. To make up for the lack of convincing conflict and thin characterization, narration (read by Julie Christie) is added which is patronizing, illogical and snore-inducingly terrible.
In one scene, Bill Nighy’s character, Brundish, tears the portrait pages from book covers and tosses them on a fire, while the narration says “There was nothing that bothered him more than the portraits that appeared in certain editions.” In another scene, we see Florence being angry at the bank teller, the narration actually states that “She is angry”. It’s bad enough that the audience are not only disengaged, but they’re being treated like brain-damaged morons.
And when the film isn’t being boring, it becomes increasingly creepy, with the inclusion of a slight romance between Florence and Brundish, as the two bond over the love of books. The age difference is just terrifying and speaking of morbidity, the ending of the film is so predictable, that a certain plot device shown early in the film completely ruins it. The foreshadowing is just insultingly solid-black.
Overall, The Bookshop is a predictable bore that wastes many of its talents on lacklustre storytelling and emotionally stunted direction from Coixet. Give a hoot, read a book. But don’t watch this movie.
Review Score: ONE BOOK (OUT OF FIVE BOOKS)
The Bookshop is in cinemas now.